Maria Sharapova makes her return to the Rogers Cup for the first time since 2014 as she will face a tricky opponent and a familiar foe in Sesil Karatantcheva in the opening round of competition. Headlining the night session of the extraordinary opening day of play in Montreal, Sharapova will look to set-up a potential blockbuster second-round meeting with compatriot Daria Kasatkina in the second round.
Karatantcheva and Sharapova had some tensions all the way back in 2004 when both players were still newbies on the tour. The Russian cancelled a scheduled exhibition with the Bulgarian which led to a heated exchange between both players, but it has been 14 years since that incident, will the two bring us another interesting clash on Monday?
Ironically, both players had also been forced to stay on the sidelines for a lengthy period of time after Sharapova was banned for 15 months after consuming the banned substance meldonium while Karatantcheva was suspended for two years 11 years back. After everything which had happened, it seemed highly unlikely that the pair will once again meet on the court. However, after a terrific qualifying campaign from the Bulgarian, a mouth-watering showdown is set once more. With both players unseeded and facing off in the first round, it seems as though we are back in 2004 once again.
Recent form: Sharapova finds her groove on clay
Maria Sharapova started her year well at the Shenzhen Open, storming to the semifinals having defeated current top-20 player Mihaela Buzarnescu in the opening round. However, after a routine run to the third round at the Australian Open where she was completely outclassed by eventual semifinalist Angelique Kerber. This began a distraught four-match losing streak for the Russian, who exited in the opening rounds in Doha, Indian Wells and Stuttgart. She was two points away from the win against Caroline Garcia at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix but crumbled at the sight of the finishing line.
However, she managed to get her season going at the large-scale clay-court events in Madrid and Rome. The former world number reached the quarterfinals in Madrid, falling to Kiki Bertens, before losing out to the top-ranked Simona Halep in the last four in Rome. On both occasions, Sharapova led by a set before losing in three. Another spirited run to the quarterfinals at Roland Garros ensued, but just when it seemed like everything was going right, Sharapova was sent packing by qualifier Vitalia Diatchenko in the first round of Wimbledon.
This will be Sharapova’s first hard-court tournament leading up to the US Open having withdrawn from the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic in the previous week due to a change in schedule. The five-time Major champion’s last appearance at the Rogers Cup came in 2014, where she fell in the third round here in Montreal.
Recent form: Karatantcheva finds her form in Montreal
Sesil Karatantcheva has been flying under the radar ever since her drug suspension back in 2006. She was unable to break back into the top-100 until 2012 and has never returned to that elite batch since 2015. The Bulgarian has not yet made a WTA main draw appearance this year after nine failed attempts. She mainly competed on the ITF Pro Circuit although she claimed some poor results which saw her accumulate a 9-14 win-loss record this year.
Fortunately for the Bulgarian, impressive wins against Demi Schuurs and Lizette Cabrera helped her to finally earn a spot in the main draw of a WTA tournament, which came timely considering this is a Premier 5 event.
This is Karatantcheva’s first top-25 opponent since her stunning straight-sets win over Jelena Jankovic in the opening round of the 2015 French Open. She will be looking to earn her first tour-level main draw victory in three years as well.
Head to Head: Sharapova leads one-sided match-up
Having met four times in the past with their earliest meeting occurring in 2004, Sharapova triumphed on all four occasions while Karatantcheva was only able to claim a set against the Russian once in her career. The former world number one only lost a mere nine games against Karatantcheva in their past three clashes, reflecting her dominance over her first-round opponent.
Match Analysis: Sharapova enters the match as the overwhelming favourite
In this seemingly one-sided clash, Sharapova has all the weapons and although she still has not found her best form ever since her return from the 15-month suspension, she should have enough in her tank to defeat the Bulgarian convincingly. Karatantcheva will have the extra motivation in her mind to attempt to push for an upset but the Russian might just be too strong for her 229th-ranked opponent on Monday night.