Train­ing with Rafa

Shara­pova was pleased to in­dulge in a prac­tice ses­sion with Nadal

Sport360 - - Italian Open - By Reem Abulleil @ReemAbulleil reemabulleil@sport360.com

Maria Shara­pova crossed some­thing off her bucket list when she hit a few balls with Rafael Nadal dur­ing a prac­tice ses­sion in Rome on Mon­day.

She then stepped on court on Tues­day to claim a tough 7-5, 3-6, 6-2 over 16th-seeded Ash­leigh Barty to set up a sec­ond round against Slo­vakia’s Do­minika Cibulkova.

Shara­pova, cur­rently ranked No. 40 in the world, could clinch a seed­ing spot in the French Open if she has a good week in a Rome and her first match was a good omen.

A three-time cham­pion in the Ital­ian cap­i­tal, Shara­pova holds the sec­ond-best record at the tour­na­ment (19-2) among ac­tive play­ers be­hind Serena Wil­liams (23-2).

Asked how her hit with Nadal came about, the Rus­sian star said: “I saw he was prac­tic­ing on the court right be­fore me and I said to my team ‘God, wouldn’t it be amaz­ing if I just came out to Rafa and said would you hit a cou­ple of balls with me?’ And they’re like ‘yeah what’s wrong with that?’ And I said ‘a lot of things. There’s a lot of things wrong with just com­ing out to Rafa…’ And they’re like ‘no, you should’. And I was like ‘Re­ally? You think I should?’ And so I did. He prob­a­bly thought I was re­ally weird, he still thinks I’m re­ally weird.”

Shara­pova ad­mits she only thought of it 15 min­utes be­fore her prac­tice, and her team joked that “it’s not like you’re ask­ing him out on a date, it’s just a few balls”.

“I was like lis­ten, you’ve got to hit a cou­ple of balls with Rafa on clay, it’s a check on the bucket list, def­i­nitely. I was so ner­vous. I was tight, re­ally tight,” con­fessed the five­time Grand Slam cham­pion.

Shara­pova’s win over Barty was just her sec­ond against a top-20 player this sea­son.

The ex-world No. 1 im­proved to 9-6 win-loss in 2018 as she con­tin­ues to search for her top form.

Shara­pova has strug­gled with lots of phys­i­cal prob­lems since her re­turn from a dop­ing ban a year ago, most re­cently suf­fer­ing from a fore­arm in­jury.

It looked like she was feel­ing pain dur­ing her bat­tle with Barty.

“Yes I felt it a lit­tle bit. Def­i­nitely. She made me hit a lot of balls, that’s the type of player she is. That’s the rea­son why she’s been do­ing so well, and she’s seeded here, and has had the re­sults that she has, a lot of low balls. Some of her slices were com­ing off, es­pe­cially on that court, were stay­ing so low. I had to work both of my hands to­day,” said Shara­pova.

Mean­while, de­fend­ing cham­pion and No. 4 seed made a strong start in Rome, de­feat­ing Pe­tra Mar­tic 6-1, 6-2 to reach the third round, hav­ing re­ceived bye in round one.

Greek up-and-comer Maria Sakkari, mak­ing her Rome main draw de­but, avenged her de­feat to Kiki Bertens from Madrid last week by oust­ing the Dutch­woman 6-2, 4-6, 6-3. She faces sixth-seeded Karolina Pliskova in the sec­ond round.

Still in re­cov­ery: Shara­pova has strug­gled with phys­i­cal por­blems since her re­turn from a dop­ing ban.

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