Five-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova cruised into the Australian Open third round on Wednesday, sweeping past Aliaksandra Sasnovich with the loss of just three games.
The on-song Russian, 28, shook off any early-season rust off in the opening round and she continued her impressive form against Sasnovich, crushing the 105th ranked Belarusian 6-2, 6-1 with the roof shut on Rod Laver Arena as rain came down.
A winner here in 2008 and a three-time runner-up, Sharapova was always heavily favoured, although the departure of second seed Simona Halep to a qualifier on Tuesday showed there are no guarantees.
The win keeps her on track for a potential last-eight clash against her nemesis Serena Williams, who beat her in the final last year and has won every match they have played since 2004. Williams is on court later Wednesday.
“It’s great to be back on this court after such a good run (to the final) last year,” said Sharapova. “It was an opponent I had never faced before which is always tricky and I’m happy I got there.”
In her 13th appearance at Melbourne Park, the fifth seed was in the zone from her first service game, which she comfortably held before a forehand long from Sasnovich handed the Russian the first break of the day.
She raced to a 4-0 lead with the Belarusian, playing her first Australian Open, struggling to counter her powerful groundstrokes.
But as Sharapova served for 5-0, Sasnovich started finding her range in returning serve and a misjudged forehand from the Russian allowed her back into the set at 1-4.
It was only a temporary reprieve with Sharapova chiding herself and bouncing back to break again but the feisty Sasnovich, a largely unknown quantity, refused to go away.
Sharapova double-faulted on set point as the nerves jangled and her 21-year-old opponent made the most of it with some quality baseline rallies helping her pull back another game.
But her service game again let her down and Sharapova capitalised to secure the set in 38 minutes.
The Belarusian made a run to the Seoul final as a qualifier last season, but had never beaten a player inside the top 30.
She nevertheless has shown promise, winning 11 consecutive finals at the Challenger and Futures level between 2011 and 2014, helping prepare her for a shot at the likes of Sharapova.
Ultimately, the Russian’s big-match experience paid off and she raced to a 3-0 lead in the second set as Sasnovich’s confidence waned and an increasing number of errors crept in.
Her opponent managed to hold serve once to keep the score respectable but the win was a foregone conclusion.
Sharapova next plays either American Lauren Davis or Slovakia’s Magdalena Rybarikova, with her early trouble-free performances a confidence boost after her late 2015 season was wrecked by injuries.
Despite this she managed two tournament wins (Brisbane and Rome), with a 39-9 win-loss record for 2015.