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By Richard Pagliaro | Monday, February 12, 2018

Monica Niculescu

Qualifier Monica Niculescu mischievously mixed spin and speed rallying past two-time champion Maria Sharapova, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, in her Doha opener.

Photo credit: Mark Peterson/Corleve

Another forehand sailed beyond the baseline leaving Maria Sharapova staring at her racquet face as if scanning the strings for answers for the unruliness.

Romanian qualifier Monica Niculescu mixed slice and spin mischievously bamboozling Sharapova down the stretch in rallying for a 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 triumph at the Qatar Total Open.

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The 92nd-ranked Niculescu did not drop a set in her two qualifying wins. She lifted her level over the final two sets today, converting six of seven break points and challenging the Sharapova second serve.

Niculescu relied on her court sense, disorientating slices to drag the baseliner forward and banging flat backhands and preyed on Sharapova’s waning sense of beliefand sporadic forehand to pull off the upset.

Monica Niculescu
Photo credit: Mark Peterson/Corleve

"I did a good job of winning longer rallies even though it's not what I wanted to get myself into," Sharapova said. "I got pretty passive in the end...

"I hadn’t faced her before. I’ve seen her play many matches. I completely changed what I was doing to get myself in a winning position."

The 30-year-old Sharapova, who opened the season reaching the Shenzhen Open semifinals, suffered her second straight loss following a 6-1, 6-3 setback to Angelique Kerber in a clash of former world No. 1 players at the Australian Open.

One of the best closers in the sport, Sharapova was her own worst enemy at times tripling her opponent’s unforced error total (52 to 17), dumping 11 double faults and looking out of sorts in the front court.

Since her comeback from a doping ban in Stuttgart last April, Sharapova has posted a 7-6 record in three-setters.

"I love playing in three-set matches," Sharapova said. "I think I’ve thrived in that in my career. So I don’t necessarily shy away from that challenge. I’ve got to look at the tape and see why I was going back behind the baseline, not moving forward, not putting the pressure on her."

The five-time Grand Slam champion struggled to close out key service games and couldn’t shake the tenacious Romanian, who hits one of the most wicked slice forehands on the tour and often made the 6’2” Russian bend low chasing those slithering slices.

Sharapova broke to open in bursting out to a 2-0 lead.

Serving for set, Sharapova double faulted on set point. Hammering away at the Romanian's backhand, Sharapova earned a second set point.

Gritty defense helped Niculescu stave off a second set point.

Trading backhands, the Romanian stepped in and ripped a two-hander down the line for break point at the 48-mintue mark. Sharapova slid a serve down the middle to erase it, but netted a backhand on her third set point.

Standing near the doubles alley, Sharapova lined up a backhand sitter but instead of driving down the open expanse down the line she wacked a wild backhand wide to face a second break point.

Continuing to gunk-up the gears of the Russian's power-based baseline game, Niculescu sent a series of funky forehands cut with slice to draw an error and break back for 3-5. Niculescu backed up the break in the ninth game.

Serving for the set again, Sharapova slipped a fine forehand volley into the corner to go up 30-15 then stuck a forehand swing volley on the sideline for her fourth set point.

Still, closure was complicated. Sharapova decelerated on a forehand into the middle of the net. Rapping a body serve into the hip, Sharapova finally sealed a tough 61-minute set.

When Niculescu went up 2-1 in the second set, Sharapova’s coach, Sven Groeneveld, tried to elevate his charge’s energy level urging Sharapova to “activate your legs.”

“You're questioning yourself—there's no need,” Groeneveld said. “The serve is there, the game plan is there. She's a tricky player as soon as you let up she will come back so keep your foot down.”

Rallies grew more physical as the second set escalated. Sharapova blasted a backhand down the line breaking for 3-2, but double faulted back the break in the sixth game.

Working the no-pace slice forehand down the middle, Niculescu drew an awkward error capping her first love hold for 4-3 at the one hour, 45-minute mark.

Two games later, Sharapova's serve disinitgrated under stress as a double fault and a bungled backhand wide gifted the love break and the second set to Niculescu.

The 41st-ranked Russian committed 22 unforced errors, including six double faults, compared to seven errors for Niculescu in the 57 minute set.

Shrugging it off, Sharapova came right back to break and open the decider.

Scrambling with vigor and doing her best to draw Sharapova forward into awkward spots in the service box, Niculescu rattled with the Russian with her low slice and slow ball tactics.

Struggling to control her range, Sharapova sailed a forehand swing volley off the back wall as Niculescu nailed down a love hold for 3-2.

Showing self doubt on the low forehand, Sharapova stuck a short forehand into net then scattered a forehand wide to ace double break point. Niculescu broke for 5-3 on a wild error.

Serving for match, Niculescu broke out a brilliant lob and backhand drop volley combination to open.

The two-handed backhand is Sharapova’s signature shot, but she was so befuddled by the varied spins she netted a slice backhand to face double match point.

Niculescu drew an errant return closing in two hours, 38 minutes and could face 14th-seeded Magdalena Rybarikova next.


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