INDIAN WELLS: Five-time Grand Slam winner Maria Sharapova needed six match points to grind out a 6-4, 6-3 win over Victoria Azarenka in a rare early marquee matchup at Indian Wells on Monday.
The 27-year old Russian appeared to be ready to close out the third round match in the eighth game of the second set but two-time Australian Open winner Azarenka decided she wasn’t going down without a fight.
Azarenka saved four match points in the eighth game of the final set and another in the ninth before finally succumbing on a Sharapova cross-court backhand that she clobbered into the net.
“She played right to the last point,” Sharapova said of Azarenka.
Sharapova moves through to the round of 16 where she will square off against defending women’s champ Flavia Pennetta of Italy.
Monday’s third round centre court clash between two former world number ones in the California desert tournament was a rematch of the 2012 Indian Wells final which was won by Azarenka.
They have met 14 times with each winning seven but Sharapova has now won the last three contests.
“We have played so many tough matches in our careers. It is great to see her back because she was injured most of last year.”
Belarus’s Azarenka, who is ranked 32 in the tournament, says she is beginning to get her form back on the court.
And she played a strong serve and volley game Monday but was undone by some careless mistakes at key moments.
Azarenka had nine double faults, committed 37 unforced errors and was broken four times by Sharapova in the one hour, 51 minute match.
“I created too many opportunities not to take them,” said Azarenka, who played just nine tournaments in 2014 because of injuries. “You cannot afford it against a player like Maria.
“That’s very disappointing. I’ve got to step it up with finishing those games and really taking my chances.”
Sharapova blasted five aces and won 75 percent of her first-serve points.
Sharapova, a two-time champion, traditionally plays well in the California desert, where she made her WTA Tour debut as a 14-year old.
She’s coming off a strong performance in the final of the Australian Open where she lost to Serena Williams.