Superstar clash could be grudge match.
A superstar clash between dueling Australian Open champions shapes up as grudge match.
One champion stands as the favorite, says Maria Sharapova.
The 30th-seeded Russian said based on seed, she is "absolutely" the underdog when she squares off against reigning Australian Open champion and long-time nemesis Caroline Wozniacki for a spot in the fourth round.
"Relatively speaking on paper, if you're looking at numbers, yeah, absolutely," Sharapova told the media when asked if she felt she was the underdog.
The 28-year-old Wozniacki has permitted just 11 games in tournament wins over Alison Van Uytvanck and Johanna Larsson. Wozniack regained the world No. 1 ranking last year, ascending to the top spot for the first time in six years—the longest gap between stints at the top in WTA history.
Photo credit: Mark Peterson/Corleve
These days, hoisting the silver Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup rather than a return to the top the motivates her most.
"I think for me, every time I step into a tournament, I want to win it," Wozniacki said. "I feel like I have a chance to win it, but I have to play my best game. Honestly, I just want to hold the trophies. That's really it."
Since she out-dueled Simona Halep in the 2018 final, Wozniacki got engaged to former NBA all star David Lee and revealed she's been battling rheumatoid arthritis.
She was diagnosed with the auto-immune disease prior to the 2018 US Open and spent some of her offseason time learning how to train and play with the illness, which can cause fatigue, swelling of her joints and pain.
"In the beginning it was a shock," Wozniacki said. "Just you feel like you’re the fittest athlete out there, or that’s in my head, that’s what I’m known for, and all of a sudden you have this to work with. It’s obviously not ideal for anybody and I think when you’re a professional athlete, it’s also not even more ideal."
Sharapova showed up for the first tournament of the year in Shenzhen wearing taping around her serving shoulder and eventually retired from her quarterfinal vs. Aryna Sabalenka, trailing 6-1, 4-2. Sharapova, who played just 11 tournaments in 2018 and nothing after the US Open, has been tape-free in Melbourne and back to looking like her ruthless self.
The 31-year-old Sharapova has won six of 10 meetings with Wozniacki, but the world No. 3 has won their two prior major meetings scoring a straight-sets win in the 2010 US Open fourth round and repelling the Russian, 6-4, 2-6, 6-2, at the same stage in the 2014 Flushing Meadows.
The 2008 champion continued her rampage through this Melbourne field. Sharapova force-fed a double bagel to British qualifier Harriet Dart in a ruthless 63-minute rout to open the tournament then backed it up dispensing a 6-2, 6-1, beatdown to Melbourne debutant Rebecca Peterson on Wednesday.
In what figures to be a Friday night lights showcase, Sharapova said she expects a physical battle with Wozniacki pitting the Russian's power and flat strikes against the Dane's fast feet and defensive acumen.
"It's always a physical match. She gets a lot of balls back," Sharapova said of Wozniacki. "A great retriever of the game. Just incredibly solid. Does a lot of things well.
"You kind of have to be No. 1 in the world, to be a Grand Slam champion. I expect her to do all those things on Friday."
Both Grand Slam champions are fierce fighters and both have felt the friction between their dueling camps in recent years.
Following her 2016 Australian Open quarterfinal loss to Serena Williams, Sharapova tested positive for the banned substance meldonium and served a 15-month doping ban.
When the Stuttgart tournament, which is sponsored by Sharapova's sponsor Porsche, awarded the Russian a wild card in her April 2017 comeback, several players—including Dominika Cibulkova, Agnieszka Radwanska, Angelique Kerber, Andy Murray, Kristina Mladenovic and Wozniacki—objected arguing players returning from doping bans should have to work their way back through the ranks and not be rewarded with wild cards.
Critical comments prompted Sharapova's agent, Max Eisenbud, to fire back branding Radwanska and Wozniacki as "journeyman players" who were trying to keep his client out of events and "have no clue" about the facts of her doping case in comments to journalist Ben Rothenberg.
With her return days away, Sharapova's agent Max Eisenbud decided to break his silence after these comments from Radwanska. Here he goes: pic.twitter.com/WXUVxooeK5
— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) April 21, 2017
Wozniacki later revealed she had rejected the IMG agent's attempted apology as "useless" because, she said, he did not attempt to apologize face-to-face. Wozniacki also slammed Eisenbud as "scared" to face her alleging he walks the other way when he sees her at events.
"He is scared to even see me," Wozniacki said in an interview with The Times. “I walk in the player lounge and he will literally walk the other way. I think that is embarrassing for him since he is one of the head people of IMG.”
If you're thinking this is just media hype over a third-round major match, consider both women have been driven to avenge disrespect in the past.
In her memoir, Unstoppable: My Life So Far, Sharapova said she's more motivated by revenge than setting records.
"The idea of legacy and greatness—is that enough? Will that do it? Probably not. That’s just abstract bullshit, for writers and fans," Sharapova wrote in her memoir. "For me, the best motivation has always been small rather than big, personal rather than universal.
"The record book? Posterity? F**k that. Did you hear what that girl said about me at the press conference? That’s what gets me going. Make them eat their words."
The five-time Grand Slam champion said she's unsure if Wozniacki's maiden major has changed her competitive character because she hasn't faced the former No. 1 since the 2015 Madrid.
"I mean, it's tough to say," Sharapova said. "I think we all kind of go along our personal journeys. I haven't played her since. Actually, we haven't played each other in a long time. It's tough to tell.
"She's No. 3 in the world. I mean, I think that speaks for itself in terms of her game, her confidence, everything else."
Though the first Melbourne match between champions should pop with intensity and draw the tennis world's attention, bookmakers are not banking on either former No. 1 sticking around to capture the title.
Neither the reigning nor former champion are among the Top 10 favorites to win the Australian Open, according to Oddschecker.
Photo credit: Mark Peterson/Corleve