INDIAN WELLS, March 15 – China's Zheng Jie battled past former champion Maria Sharapova 6-3, 2-6, 6-3 Sunday to reach the fourth round of the BNP Paribas Open.
Zheng, whose run to the Australian Open semi-finals along with that of compatriot Li Na electrified Chinese tennis, next faces Alicia Molik, with a chance to avenge her first round loss to the Australian in Dubai last month.
Molik, a 29-year-old who is on the comeback trail after a second career-threatening ailment, cruised into the round of 16 with a 6-0, 6-2 victory over British qualifier Elena Baltacha.
But Zheng toiled for two hours, 43 minutes to dispatch the 10th-seeded Sharapova – the second set alone taking 68 minutes.
"It was a tough match," Zheng said. "The second set, I still had some chances, a lot of games went to deuce."
Sharapova was impressed by Zheng’s tenacity.
"She’s like a ball machine," Sharapova said. "She hits a lot of balls back, hits them hard and deep.
"I mean, I’d say I should have done a much better job on her serve, because her serve is definitely one of her weaker parts of the game, but… "
After dropping her serve in the first game of the third set, Zheng broke back immediately. Sharapova broke again to take a 3-2 lead, after which she received treatment on court on her elbow – and didn’t win another game.
"I just felt like I couldn’t really extend it all the way," Sharapova said. "It was a little stuck. So it was going on for a while, but I thought it would be best to call the trainer.
"I actually didn’t want to take a timeout then, but she said if I didn’t do it then I couldn’t do it later. I had to take a three minute timeout."
Sharapova said the elbow had been bothering her since she arrived at Indian Wells, and was a hindrance on her serve.
For Zheng, the injury timeout was a welcome breather.
"It was good fighting for the final set," she said. "I think it was 2-3 down, and I came back to 6-3. It’s not easy. I’m so tired.
"When she called the trainer, I called my coach. I said, ‘Oh, I have time for rest.’ Coach tell me, ‘Keep fighting.’ It gave me more confidence."
Sharapova had two double faults, including one on break point, in the eighth game as Zheng seized a 5-3 lead.
The 26-year-old from Cheng Du then raced to a 40-0 lead, but missed her first opportunity to seal the match when she put a forehand into the net. She made no mistake on the next however, firing a forehand winner to the baseline.
With the victory, Zheng improved on her previous best Indian Wells performance – a third-round appearance in 2008.
Sharapova won the title in the California desert in 2006, but didn’t play singles here last year as she continued her recovery from shoulder surgery.
The former world number one lost a three-set slugfest to compatriot Maria Kirilenko in the first round of the Australian Open, but bounced back last month by lifting the WTA title in Memphis.
In other women’s matches, fourth-seeded Russian Elena Dementieva downed Belgian Kirsten Flipkens 6-4, 6-2, setting up a clash with France’s Aravane Rezai, who outlasted Italy’s Francesca Schiavone 6-7 (4/7), 7-6 (7/2), 6-4.
Fifth-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland beat Argentina’s Gisela Dulko 6-1, 6-0, advancing to a fouth-round meeting with France’s Marion Bartoli – a 6-2, 6-0 winner over American Jill Craybas.
Second-seeded Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark was to take on Kirilenko, while Zheng’s compatriot Peng Shuai faced Russian Nadia Petrova.