Struggling Sharapova advances

MELBOURNE, Australia -- It is a relative thing, Maria Sharapova's struggles.

That she is still here, moving on to the second week of the Australian Open and displaying at least some of what has made her one of the best players in the women's game, would seem to be the important thing after a shoulder injury kept her off the tour for the second half of 2013.

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While she admittedly didn't play her best tennis, Maria Sharapova had a few moments worth shouting about in her third-round match.

As the women's draw becomes more interesting with a showdown looming between American Sloane Stephens and two-time defending champion Victoria Azarenka, with expectations as high as ever for the brilliant Serena Williams, and with others such as Simona Halep, Eugenie Bouchard, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic playing compelling tennis, Sharapova is as unobtrusive as is possible for her to be.

Saturday, she defeated No. 25 seed Alize Cornet of France, 6-1, 7-6(6) with an uneven game that has been evident in each of her matches here.

Sharapova clearly was tired and had every right to be after being put into one of the most demanding situations of any player all week -- playing 18 games in the third set against Karin Knapp in 109-degree heat two days ago after the tournament's Extreme Heat Policy had sent all others to the locker room (because they had finished their sets).

But when all else fails for Sharapova, when her serve goes south and she's spraying backhands wide as she did Saturday, there is always the steely resolve that has characterized her from the beginning. And you won't get her to use Thursday's ordeal as an excuse, except to admit that her physiotherapist had "a long evening" that night.

"Of course, everyone that played a long match in those conditions is going to feel physically and emotionally tired, and that's the way it goes," said Sharapova, who converted just 6 of 14 break points Saturday and was broken three times in the second set in temperatures 30 degrees cooler. "You just have to find a way to get through it [and] that's what I did. It was quite tough in the end. [Cornet ] had a set point and she had a chance to level the match out, which is something I probably wouldn't want to do, is go into a third set.

"I was happy I was able to finish it in two."

Sharapova, seeded No. 3, next plays No. 20 Dominika Cibulkova, a 6-1, 6-0 winner over No. 16 Carla Suarez Navarro, and it could be trouble. Cibulkova has yet to be pushed to three sets in three matches and has lost just nine games overall.

"She's a great retriever of the ball, it's going to be a very physical match," Sharapova said of her fourth-round opponent. "She likes to make it physical. That's when she plays her best. Obviously, I don't want to go there with her.

"But, no, she's a tough opponent, that's for sure. She plays a lot of top players extremely well and tough and has nothing to lose, so I'm expecting a tough one the next round."

Sharapova resides in the same half of the draw as Stephens, a 7-5, 6-4 winner over Elina Svitolina, and Azarenka, who flattened Yvonne Meusburger 6-1, 6-0 in a third-round match Saturday night.

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With her latest win, American Sloane Stephens now has advanced to the fourth round or better in five consecutive Grand Slam events.

Sharapova could meet Stephens or Azarenka, both of whom would provide a stiff test, in the semifinals. For the 20-year-old Stephens, it is the fifth consecutive Grand Slam tournament in which she has made it to the fourth round or better.

"You guys ask me that every time," Stephens said when asked to what she attributes her success at the majors as opposed to the other tournaments, which have not produced such results. "I don't know. I just play, and then I end up in the second week. Then, I don't know. … But my goal this year is to do better at the smaller tournaments."

Sharapova's goal is to get into a groove, which is why she went directly from Rod Laver Arena to the practice court Saturday to hit more balls.

There were times in the first set against Cornet that looked like a Sharapova master class in building a point. With more play, she said, she hopes she'll find her rhythm. She reports that her shoulder "feels good."

"I still feel like in certain situations I am a bit rusty and I'm not closing it out when I have to or maybe going for a little much or overthinking it a bit," she said. "That will come. I'm not worried about that. As long as I feel like I'm doing the right things and I'm playing the way I want to play, if I'm making those types of errors, they are going to go in eventually."

If it is possible for someone whose Facebook page has 11 million Likes to be unobtrusive, Sharapova might be actually pulling it off here, the expectations moderate and all else relative.

"I think I can take a few positives from this match, one being the fact that I was able to win it not playing my best tennis," she said. "There are definitely things I'm going to have to improve and do better moving forward, because it only is going to get tougher."

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