It was tough luck for both 19th seed Donna Vekic and wildcard Maria Sharapova as they were drawn to face each other in the first round of the Australian Open. This tournament was vital for both players with the Croatian chasing a good result to prove her abilities while the Russian has to clinch a good result to regain her momentum.
Vekic hoping to prove a point
Vekic had a breakthrough 2019 when she reached her first Major quarterfinal and cracked the top-20 for the first time in her career. Consistency continues to be an issue for the 23-year-old, with several lacklustre performances being produced from the Croatian. She entered the new decade on a three-match losing streak but started the new season with a 3-6, 6-3, 5-7 loss to Yulia Putintseva in the first round of the Brisbane International.
There were positive signs for Vekic in Adelaide the following week, starting her campaign by overturning a 0-5 head-to-head record against Anastasija Sevastova by recovering from a set down to triumph. Her run continued against good friend Maria Sakkari, mounting another terrific comeback to prevail, although she was defeated by eventual finalist Dayana Yastremska in the quarterfinals.
Vekic has never advanced past the second round in Melbourne, losing to 240th-ranked wildcard Kimberly Birrell last year despite being in great form. Her record at the Grand Slams may not be the best, but she has become more of a threat in recent years especially with her current status as a seeded player.
Sharapova hungry for more
On the other hand, Sharapova is currently ranked 145th and has fourth-round points to defend in Melbourne. A first-round exit would ensue a drop out of the top-400, but it would not matter much as the Russian is able to request for a top-20 wildcard at most tournaments. She played just eight tournaments due to another shoulder surgery but amassed just an 8-7 win-loss record after experiencing some poor luck in her draws.
She started the new season with an exhibition match in Abu Dhabi, defeating Ajla Tomljanovic in straight sets but her first official match in three months ended up in a defeat as she was unable to defeat an in-form Jennifer Brady in the first round of the Brisbane International. Admitted into the hospital due to a virus the same week, Sharapova’s health had question marks written all over it once again but she appeared at the Kooyong Classic, another exhibition event in Melbourne where she played against Laura Siegemund and Tomljanovic though she was unable to clinch a win.
Sharapova and Vekic have met once previously — in the second round of the 2018 French Open when the Russian triumphed in two tight sets. This will, no doubt, be another close encounter between the two hard-hitters.
Vekic has vastly improved under new coach Torben Beltz, who led Angelique Kerber to two Grand Slam titles four years ago. Sharapova is also working with new coach Riccardo Piatti as well, and her serve would be one to keep a lookout for on Tuesday. The serve has always been problematic for the five-time Major champion ever since her shoulder injury a decade ago, but it will be interesting to see how it works out on her 16th Australian Open appearance.
Making her eighth main draw appearance in Melbourne, Vekic will look to claim a big-name victory over Sharapova, which could boost her confidence considering the potential opponents ahead in the draw for the winner of this match. The winner would either face Alize Cornet or Monica Niculescu in the second round and could face 11th seed Aryna Sabalenka in the third round.
Vekic will have the advantage of match play, although Sharapova also competed in several events to shrug off any possible rust. Coming into this clash, the more reliable pick appears to be the Croatian because we never know which version of Sharapova would appear in this tournament. However, if she has a good day at the office, Sharapova has a bigger chance of pulling off the upset with Vekic facing another early-exit at a Grand Slam once again.