Sport360 - 5/16/2018 5:20:51 PM - GMT (+4 )
Maria Sharapova crossed something off her bucket list when she hit a few balls with Rafael Nadal during a practice session in Rome on Monday.
She then stepped on court on Tuesday to claim a tough 7-5, 3-6, 6-2 over 16th-seeded Ashleigh Barty to set up a second round against Slovakia’s Dominika Cibulkova.
Sharapova, currently ranked No. 40 in the world, could clinch a seeding spot in this month’s French Open if she has a good week in a Rome and her first match was a good omen.
A three-time champion in the Italian capital, Sharapova holds the second-best record at the tournament (19-2) among active players behind Serena Williams (23-2).
Asked how her hit with Nadal came about, the Russian star said: “I saw he was practicing on the court right before me and I said to my team ‘God, wouldn’t it be amazing if I just came out to Rafa and said would you hit a couple of balls with me?’ And they’re like ‘yeah what’s wrong with that?’ And I said ‘a lot of things. There’s a lot of things wrong with just coming out to Rafa…’ And they’re like ‘no, you should’. And I was like ‘Really? You think I should?’ And so I did. He probably thought I was really weird, he still thinks I’m really weird.”
Sharapova admits she only thought of it 15 minutes before her practice, and her team joked that “it’s not like you’re asking him out on a date, it’s just a few balls”.
“I was like listen, you’ve got to hit a couple of balls with Rafa on clay, it’s a check on the bucket list, definitely. I was so nervous. I was tight, really tight,” confessed the five-time Grand Slam champion.
Sharapova’s win over Barty was just her second against a top-20 player this season.
The ex-world No. 1 improved to 9-6 win-loss in 2018 as she continues to search for her top form.
Sharapova has struggled with lots of physical problems since her return from a doping ban a year ago, most recently suffering from a forearm injury.
It looked like she was feeling some pain during her battle with Barty on Tuesday.
“Yes I felt it a little bit. Definitely. She made me hit a lot of balls, that’s the type of player she is. That’s the reason why she’s been doing so well, and she’s seeded here, and has had the results that she has, a lot of low balls. Some of her slices were coming off, especially on that court, were staying so low. I had to work both of my hands today,” said Sharapova.
Meanwhile, defending champion and No. 4 seed made a strong start in Rome, defeating Petra Martic 6-1, 6-2 to reach the third round, having received bye in round one.
Greek up-and-comer Maria Sakkari, making her Rome main draw debut, avenged her defeat to Kiki Bertens from Madrid last week by ousting the Dutchwoman 6-2, 4-6, 6-3. She faces sixth-seeded Karolina Pliskova in the second round.