13 Feb 2018 - 0:30
Qatar Total Open: Qualifier Monica Niculescu stuns Maria Sharapova
DOHA: Former World No.1 Maria Sharapova surrendered an early advantage to suffering a stunning 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 loss to Romanian qualifier Monica Niculescu in the first round of the Qatar Total Open here yesterday.
Also making it to the second round of the WTA tournament were Dominika Cibulkova, Romania’s Mihaela Buzarnescu, American qualifier CiCi Bellis, along with Russian duo of Ekaterina Makarova and Anna Blinkova.
Wild Card Sharapova, playing in Doha for the first time since 2013 began on an emphatic note by winning the first set but struggled to carry forward the momentum in the next two against a determined opponent and crashed out after two hours 38 minutes.
Five-time Grand Slam winner Sharapova was not helped by 11 double faults and 52 unforced errors while her opponent, who fired 12 winners, grew in confidence as the contest went on.
In her first meeting against Sharapova, the Romanian veteran twice trailed by a set and a break before turning the tide on the Russian breaking at love to level the match and winning 12 of the final 13 points to secure victory.
Niculescu and Sharapova treated the Doha crowd to some thrilling games and rallies, but it was the 2012 Qatar Total Open quarterfinalist’s consistency that won the day, hitting 12 winners to just 17 unforced errors and converting six of seven break point opportunities. Visibly frustrated by Niculescu’s spins and slices, the 2008 champion was ultimately undone by the 52 unforced errors that canceled out her 31 winners.
The 30-year-old has been ranked as high as No.28 in the world but nearly fell out of the Top 100 for the first time in eight years at start of the season, and was forced to play qualifying just to make the Qatar Total Open main draw.
Qualifier Niculescu, who used her slices to good effect and converted six out of seven break points in the match to oust Russian Sharapova, will take on Wimbledon semi-finalist Magdalena Rybarikova or local wild card Fatma Al Nabhani next.
Earlier, Cibulkova rallied past Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 7-6(8), 6-4 as she progressed to a second round meeting with France’s seventh seed Caroline Garcia.
“I was expecting a tough match against Anastasia. It’s always tough. We know each other really well and played so much great matches,” Cibulkova told reporters after the match.
“For an opening match it wasn’t an easy draw, I would say...I played the good match for the first round. It’s really nice to win such a tough match in the first round.” A 2017 semifinalist in Doha where she lost to eventual champion Karolina Pliskova, the former World No.4 hit 23 winners to 20 unforced errors in the victory, while Pavlyuchenkova struck 28 winners to 26 miscues.
The Slovak is contesting her fourth event of 2018 in Doha, but has seen an uneven start to her campaign since reaching the quarterfinals in Sydney to begin her year.
Upset by Kaia Kanepi in the first round of the Australian Open, Cibulkova is coming off a second-round defeat in St. Petersburg at the hands of Kristina Mladenovic.
“I feel like I’m playing well. I need to get more matches in a row to win, to get the confidence,” she said. “I came here a little bit earlier, a few days before just to get used to the balls, the courts, to play outside again, and I think it helped.
“It was pretty sad with my performance at the Australian Open because in Sydney I played really well, and I just felt good. At the first match against Kanepi, I was really flat, so it was one of those bad days.
“I’m just trying to do my best. I’m very experienced player, and I was working on just my serve and all that stuff because playing wise I feel really good. So I’m just trying to put into the matches and get some more matches to win in a row.” Last year’s appearance in Doha, where she knocked off Pavlyuchenkova and Samantha Stosur before losing to Pliskova, marked the first time that the Slovak won consecutive matches at the event since 2008.
She’ll look to repeat that feat this year in the second round as she takes on No.7 seed Caroline Garcia, against whom she is 1-1 in career meetings.
“It’s going to be a tough match,” Cibulkova said. “I played her...in Wuhan, and she won the tournament when she was playing really well. I want to keep playing good tennis like this one here.”
QATAR TOTAL OPEN 2018: YESTERDAY’S RESULTS
Monica Niculescu (ROU) bt Maria Sharapova (RUS) 4-6, 6-4, 6-3
Ekaterina Makarova (RUS) bt Shuai Zhang (CHN) 7-5, 6-0
Anna Blinkova (RUS) bt Elena Vesnina (RUS) 6-1,6-3
Mihaela Buzarnescu (ROU) bt Lesia Tsurenko (UKR) 7-5,6-4
Ying-Ying Duan (CHN) bt Ons Jabeur (TUN) 6-2,6-3
Catherine Bellis (USA) bt Daria Kasatkina (RUS) 7-5, 4-1 Ret’d
Dominika Cibulkova (SVK) bt Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (RUS) 7-6(8),6-4
Today’s Order of Play
Play starts at noon on Center Court, 5pm on Court 6 and 3.30pm elsewhere
Qiang Wang (CHN) vs Madison Keys (USA) 
Shuai Peng (CHN) vs Kristina Mladenovic (FRA) 
Cagla Buyukakcay (TUR) vs Petra Kvitova (CZE) 
Ying-Ying Duan (CHN) vs Garbiñe Muguruza (ESP) 
Not before 7pm
Julia Goerges (GER)  vs Lucie Safarova (CZE)
Caroline Garcia (FRA)  vs Dominika Cibulkova (SVK)
Johanna Konta (GBR)  vs Bernarda Pera (USA)
Fatma Al Nabhani (OMA) vs Magdalena Rybarikova (SVK) 
Barbora Strycova (CZE) vs Aleksandra Krunic (SRB)
Anett Kontaveit (EST) vs Alizé Cornet (FRA)
Samantha Stosur (AUS) vs Irina-Camelia Begu (ROU)
Elise Mertens (BEL)  vs Timea Babos (HUN)
Anastasija Sevastova (LAT)  vs Donna Vekic (CRO)
Tatjana Maria (GER) vs Carina Witthoeft (GER)
Carla Suárez Navarro (ESP) vs Kateryna Bondarenko (UKR)
Yulia Putintseva (KAZ) vs Marketa Vondrousova (CZE)
Maria Sakkari (GRE) vs Sorana Cirstea (ROU)