In her first career meeting against Maria Sharapova, Monica Niculescu completed the biggest shock at the Qatar Open. The Romanian completed a comeback 4-6 6-4 6-3 win against the Russian, the highest-ranked opponent she has beaten so far this season.
Romanian qualifier Niculescu won 12 of the last 13 points and celebrated a huge win as Sharapova sent the final forehand long in her 52nd unforced error throughout the match. The No.92 did not drop a set in her two qualifying wins and raised the bar of her peculiar game converting six of seven break points. She covered the court much better than Sharapova whose attacking groundstrokes lacked angles to avoid the Romanian sliced defenses.
Making her fourth appearance at Qatar Total Open and first since 2013, two-time champion Sharapova, who lifted the trophy in 2005 (d. Molik in F) and 2008, lost her first match against a qualifier since 2014 Wuhan to Timea Bacsinszky after nine consecutive wins.
Bidding for a 13th win at the tournament, only A.Radwanska and Wozniacki have more among the players in this year’s draw, Sharapova broke to open in bursting out to a 2-0 lead. Serving for the set at 5-2, Sharapova missed three set points before losing serve after Niculescu drew error after error with her unorthodox forehands. But Sharapova closed the set with a huge body serve.
When Niculescu went up 2-1 in the second set, Sharapova’s coach, Sven Groeneveld, asked her to “activate your legs.”
“The game plan is there. She's a tricky player as soon as you let up she will come back so keep your foot down” he added. The Russian broke to 3-2 but gifted the break back with a bleeding double fault. Niculescu held to love to 4-3 and sealed the set as Sharapova lost her serve to love after one of her 11 double faults and a bungled backhand wide.
Since her comeback last year, Sharapova maintained a 7-6 win-loss record in deciding sets but this time she showed a dangerously high level of self-doubt on low forehands to seal the match. Niculescu, evidently more self-assured, completed the second Top 50 win of the season and followed her bid to repeat her best showing here, the quarter-final run in 2012. She could also equal the best result by a qualifier at Doha: Krasnoroutskaya, Nagyova (both 2001), Kirilenko (2005), Kateryna Bondarenko (2007), Peng (2011), Cetkovska (2014), Vesnina (2016) and Davis (2017) all reached the last 8 at the Premier 5 event.
Edging back towards the Top 80, Niculescu will next play either No.14 seed and 2018 Wimbledon semifinalist Magdalena Rybarikova or local wildcard Fatma Al Nabhani, the gold medallist at the Arab Games in Doha in 2011. “It’s going to be a very tough match, but I’ll try my best. You never know what’s gonna happen,” Al Nabhani said during the draw ceremony.
Agnieszka Radwanska completed the third win in three matches over Mona Barthel in a thrilling match involving nine match points wasted and a game that the supervisor ordered to replay after the chair umpire Maria Cicak mistakenly awarded a point to the German. Radwanska then broke to 5-2 to launch a comeback 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 victory in just over two hours and 20 minutes.
Radwanska sealed the 17th career victory in Doha from eight previous visits, making her the winningest player in the tournament's 15-year history. But despite her stellar record, the five-time semifinalist came into the first Premier 5 event of the year unseeded in Doha for the first time in her career after an injury-plagued saw her fall out of the Top 20.
Radwanska ultimately needed 10 match points, and drilled 28 of her 30 winners in the last two sets while hitting just 10 unforced errors. Barthel, who five years ago to the day beat Angelique Kerber here, struck 58 winners but was undone by her 37 unforced errors and eight double faults. The Pole, unseeded at Doha for the first time in her career, continues her bid to clinch the sixth semifinal in Doha.
Dominika Cibulkova became the first main draw winners she edged Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 7-6(8), 6-4 completing her seventh win in ten meetings. Cibulkova needed four set points and saved one herself in the first-set tiebreak and continued to pressure Pavlyuchenkova off the backhand side. A couple of breaks in the first and fifth game made the difference in the second set.
Cibulkova, who could reach 700 career matches (all levels) by reaching the semifinals this week, completed her 422nd victory. She now plays No.7 seed, Caroline Garcia. The Slovak won the less recent clash and lost in straight sets last year in Wuhan before the Frenchwoman won her most prestigious title so far. "It's going to be a tough match," Cibulkova said. "I played her...in Wuhan, and she won the tournament when she was playing really well. I want to keep playing good tennis like this one here."
Russian fans lived an extremely contrasting opening day of the tournament. Daria Kasatkina was forced to retire down by a set and a break against Catherine Bellis, one win away from her 30th main draw win. Elena Vesnina, then, surrendered to a heavy loss to the youngest of the three teenagers in the main draw, Ana Blinkova, after beating her twice at Wimbledon and Us Open first round last year. The 19-year-old qualifier upsets 6-1 6-3 the world No.23, showing signs of a cold, who constantly struggled to counter her opponent all-court game during mid-long rallies.
Blinkova completed her fourth main draw win in her career and beat a Top 30 for the first time. The best success in her career to date had come against No.31 Sevastova at 2016 Moscow after saving 5 match points.
Blinkova will now face Peng or Mladenovic in the second round.