When the tennis doesn’t catch fire, you can always turn to Maria Sharapova for an interesting remark or observation — but they do not always have sexy connotations.
Today was the exception after the No. 2 seed had advanced to the last 16 of the Australian Open with a 6-1, 6-0 victory over Belgium’s Kirsten Flipkens.
Maria has her own candy company with 12 different flavors called Sugarpova. When she was asked for a new name to sum up her amazing start to this tournament, which has seen her drop only five games in three matches, Sharapova buried her head in her hands for a moment and, after rejecting a suggestion of Happypova, giggled, “I would call it ‘Steamy’ but for different reasons.”
After roaring with slightly embarrassed laughter, she looked up at the back of the room where her agent Max Eisenbud was sitting and said, “You know what I’m talking about, Max.”
Eisenbud wasn’t about to spell it out, but confirmed that the handsome young Bulgarian player Grigor Dimitrov had been watching her match. From all accounts the relationship encompasses a lot more than watching each other’s matches.
Whether it is love or just the fine form she is showing on court, the tall Russian with the film-star looks has appeared radiant all week and has even started tweeting. She even offered a little humor: “Post match cool down. Stretching to get taller. Just what I need.”
But she will let nothing get in the way of her professionalism as she aims for her second Australian title and fifth Grand Slam overall. Asked how much time she spent on recovery, she replied, “I spend a lot more time doing little shoulder exercises that are a complete bore that I wish I didn’t have to do, but I do. Usually on the days off I spend 45 minutes to an hour in the gym.
"But it’s not like lifting weights. It’s more preventive exercises for the whole body. Then another hour on the massage table. But I’m usually doing emails — it’s my trainer who is working!”
Sharapova’s next opponent will be a fellow Russian who seems to have a liking for Melbourne Park. Last year Ekaterina Makarova caused a sensation by beating Serena Williams, and Sunday she outplayed the No. 5 seed from Germany, Angelique Kerber, 7-5, 6-4.
“I feel very good playing here, the crowd is so nice,” said Makarova, who reached the quarterfinal with that Williams win last year and the fourth round here in 2011. But for a player with such heavy ground strokes and good athleticism, Makarova has under-performed elsewhere, with Eastbourne on grass in 2010 being her only title win on the WTA Tour.
Whether her matchup against Sharapova will be steamy, happy or one-sided remains to be seen.
China’s Li Na, who is now coached by Justine Henin’s long-time mentor Carlos Rodriguez, also reached the fourth round with a 7-6 (6), 6-1 victory over Germany’s Julia Goerges.
Janko Tipsarevic, the No. 8 seed, was forced to retire hurt against Nicolas Almagro, the 10th seed, at 6-2, 1-0 down — which will ensure an all-Spanish, fourth-round clash between Almagro and David Ferrer, the world’s No. 5 who is the fourth seed in the absence of Rafael Nadal.
Weathering an early onslaught from the talented Japanese opponent Kei Nishikori, who missed five break-point opportunities in the first three games of the match, Ferrer came through 6-2, 6-1, 6-4.
At the age of 30, Ferrer still seems to be improving and may yet break through the top-four barrier to snatch a Grand Slam title.
Asked about his improvement, Ferrer replied, “I have more experience. I played a lot of years, tennis. I am more quiet with myself, no? This very important for me to improve my game.”