Maria Sharapova has often called her run to the Australian Open 2008 title her best tournament ever, and for a very good reason: back then she beat a host of standout players to win her sole crown in Melbourne, including former champions Lindsay Davenport and Justine Henin, Olympic gold medalist Elena Dementieva, and two future No. 1s in Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic.
“Toughest draw in my career,” Sharapova said on Sunday.
In her first four matches in 2008 she lost a total of 16 games: she beat Jelena Kostanic-Tosic in the first round; Davenport in the second round; fellow Russian Elena Vesnina in the third round; and Dementieva in the fourth.
After being pushed briefly at the start of her fourth round match by Belgium's Kirsten Flipkens on Sunday, Sharapova raced away to a 6-1 6-0 victory. The 25-year-old began the 2013 tournament with two 6-0 6-0 wins, and then took the first four games of her match over seven-time Grand Slam winner Venus Williams before completing a 6-1 6-3 victory.
All in all, Sharapova has lost five games in four matches this week, the fewest number of games conceded to the quarterfinal stage of the Australian Open by any player since 1988, the introduction of the 128-player draw.
Yes, it could be argued that she’s playing even better than her run in 2008, which was two months before she first injured her right shoulder that eventually led to surgery.
“You have to face whoever's in the next round,” she said. “Whether it's Flipkens – and it won't be Dementieva now – it’s who's ahead of you. It doesn't really matter. There's a reason why your opponent gets to that stage of the tournament. I mean, [Flipkens] beats Zakopalova like 2 and 1. She has a different type of game, one you don't see so much. That's why she wins so many matches.”
The 27-year-old Flipkens tried to mix it up against Sharapova, employing her sharp backhand slice and trying to get to the net, but four-time Grand Slam champion was striking the ball too deep and too hard to give her much of a chance.
The Russian finished the match with 25 winners to just four from Flipkens. She broke the Belgian six times, who won only 22 of her 57 service points.
“It's really about keeping your focus and no matter what the score is, no matter if you're up,” Sharapova said.
“I didn't start the match really great. I was facing a different type of opponent today and I was making a few more mistakes than I would have liked in the beginning. But after I held at 2‑1, I really started making her play a little bit more. Started really getting under the ball and being aggressive and just had a little bit more energy, which really helped me and I carried that throughout the match. It's always much easier said than done to keep that focus.”
Sharapova will face 19th seed Ekaterina Makarova in the next round, who took care of fellow left-hander and No. 5 Angelique Kerber 7-5 6-4 earlier on Sunday.
In 2008, Sharapova went into her quarterfinal against Henin with a head of steam as she believed she had choked the 2007 WTA finals against her in Madrid. After that match, Sharapova had wept and vowed to get her back. She clocked Henin in Melbourne two months late, and on Sunday, she said that it was after that win that she knew she could take the title.
Sharapova is unsure if she has that special Slam-winning feeling yet, but by the looks of her performance in the first week, it’s going to take a monumental effort from anyone to knock her off.
“Sometimes if you're playing really good in practice I get a little bit worried,” she said. “But I never do. I'm horrible in practice most of the time. I'm like, ‘that's a great sign’, because I come to the matches and my expectations are quite low.
“But I think it depends. Every Grand Slam that I've won or done well at, I've always felt different actually. Sometimes I feel like I'm not playing my best tennis in the beginning, but I start playing better. And then a couple that I've won, I felt like I was playing great from the beginning and I was able to carry that through the whole tournament.”