Maria Kirilenko, a fan-frustrating under-achiever on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, found all of her strengths today in her 3-hour and 22-minute Australian Open first round match against countrywoman Maria Sharapova. Kirilenko has always had a varied and sometimes elegant game, but her consistency and focus often leave her, especially when things get tough.
Not today. Kirilenko, facing an error-prone and sometimes sluggish Sharapova, held her nerve, repeatedly scooped successful forehands off the ground, and consistently moved her opponent into corners. Down an early mini-break in the first set tiebreak, Kirilenko came back to win it, 7-4. Sharapova won the long second set 6-3, and it wasn't much of a stretch to believe that she could work her way into a match win.
However, Kirilenko quickly went up a break in the third, and then went up 3-0. And even as Sharapova worked to bridge the gap, Kirilenko's confidence did not leave her. She served for the match at 5-3 and was broken, as Sharapova showed the determination for which she is known. Sharapova then held, but if there was doubt in Kirilenko's mind, it didn't show; she won on her second match point.
Because of rain, the match was played with the roof on. Just 11 minutes short of the longest Australian Open women's match in history, the sparring of the two Marias was both competitive and entertaining. Sharapova played only exhibition matches prior to the tournament, which appears to have hurt her. She struggled with her ball toss, and she committed 77 unforced errors, including 11 double faults (she also hit 9 aces).
But credit to Kirilenko, who was a tough and effective opponent, sending the 14th seed home in the first round of a major, and pulling off a newsworthy upset.