Sports

Maria all hot and bothered

A flustered Maria Sharapova survived a huge scare to advance at the Australian Open yesterday in gruelling Melbourne conditions.

The second-seeded Russian had a meltdown as the heat was turned up and had to dig deep to save two match points, before staging an epic comeback to beat courageous compatriot Alexandra Panova 6-1, 4-6, 7-5.

While the searing 
42-degree Celsius heat of last year has yet to materialise in Melbourne, temperatures reached 33-degree 
Celcius and players, including Sharapova, draped ice towels around their shoulders at the changeovers.

Sharapova, who can unseat Serena Williams as the world No. 1 if she wins the title, wilted badly after winning the opening set, firing a slew of unforced errors that almost had her on an early plane home.

"I didn't actually want to be out here for two-and-a-half hours, but that's sometimes the way it goes on days when you're not playing your best - sometimes it's good enough just to get through," she said.

"I was one point away from being out of this 
tournament twice today and not playing my best tennis, so I'm just happy I was able to win that last point."

The five-time Grand Slam champion, red-faced from the heat, trailed 4-1 in the deciding set and looked out for the count, but rallied to save two match points when down 5-4.

Panova, a qualifier, kept pressing but the world 
No. 2 had the bit between her teeth and used her considerable experience to hang on and set up a third-round tie against Kazak Zarina Diyas.

The 27-year-old Sharapova won the Australian title in 2008 but also has a history of struggling in the heat in Melbourne, particularly during the early rounds, including a first-round exit in 2010.

Sharapova said Panova, who has failed to qualify for the Open main draw on five previous occasions, was 
"inspired" and unafraid to play her shots.

OFF THE PACE

But she also admitted her own performance - which included a whopping 51 unforced errors and six double faults - was well off the pace if she is to win the Australian title again and seize back the world No. 1 ranking.

She was hopeful a tough match early on would leave her battle hardened for the tournament's latter stages, rather than deplete the energy banks as she heads into a gruelling Grand Slam campaign.

But Panova highlighted one of Sharapova's strengths - her fighting spirit.

"She came up with a good shots, with the winners. What could I do?" Panova said.

"She's a great fighter. She's a great champion. To take it from her, you really need something extra." 
- Wire Services.