Tennis: Sharapova in hot Open form

Maria Sharapova is in the last 16 of the women's competition and was tested for the first time at the Australian Open yesterday - but still came out with a 6-1 6-2 win over Germany's Angelique Kerber.

The 2008 champion has lost only five games in reaching the fourth round at Melbourne Park. She won her first two matches 6-0 6-1 despite not playing any warm-up tournaments because of an ankle injury. But she is looking in fine form and, even though Kerber pushed her on more than a few occasions, Sharapova's powerful ground strokes dismissed the German time and again.

The scoreline made it look easy enough for Sharapova, but she was given a full workout in a 56-minute second set, with many games going to deuce. "She certainly stepped up in the second set," Sharapova said. "She reached the semifinals at the US Open last year so she's been on the big stage before and I knew she could produce some really good tennis."

In this form, Sharapova is a title contender although she is on course for a possible semifinal meeting with the powerful second seed, Petra Kvitova, who is also a form horse in the women's competition. Kvitova is the reigning Wimbledon champion, beating Sharapova in last year's final.

Before any meeting with Kvitova, however, Sharapova, the 2008 Australian Open champion, will next play Germany's Sabine Lisicki who put out former US Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in three sets yesterday.

Five-time champion Serena Williams is also a potential quarter-final opponent for Sharapova after becoming the last American left in this year's Open.

Kvitova was only on court for 38 minutes in her third-round match Saturday before advancing at the Australian Open. Kvitova was leading 6-0 1-0 on Rod Laver Arena when Russia's Maria Kirilenko retired with a left thigh injury. The Russian had treatment for the injury in the first set and, after dropping serve immediately in the second, she walked to the net and shook hands with Kvitova. It was the fourth retirement of the women's tournament.

Kirilenko was hampered by the injury but there was still no hiding the power, depth and accuracy of Kvitova's play. Kvitova will face Ana Ivanovic of Serbia after she dealt with unseeded American Vania King to leave Williams as the lone American surviving in this tournament. John Isner's loss on Friday ended any hope of a men's champion from the United States and is the first time since 1973 (when no Americans attended) that a US male had not been in the fourth round.

Two other seeds were shown the exit door yesterday - Russia's seventh seed Vera Zvonareva and France's Marion Bartoli. The latter was ousted 6-3 6-3 by China's Zheng Jie, a former semifinalist at Melbourne Park. Zheng jumped out to a quick start breaking the ninth-seeded Bartoli twice to take a 4-0 lead in the first set. She dominated Bartoli on the ground, hitting 28 winners to just seven for the Frenchwoman. Bartoli, a former runner-up at Wimbledon, hasn't advanced past the third round at Melbourne since 2009.

Zheng and countrywoman Li Na reached the semifinals of the Australian Open in 2010, the first time any Chinese player had gone that far in a slam. Zheng has lost in the second round of six majors since then. Li won the French Open last year and faces defending champion Kim Clistjers today. Fellow Russian Ekaterina Makarova beat Zvonareva in straight sets, 7-6 6-1.

Meanwhile, Samantha Stosur is hoping to rediscover her form in the pleasant surrounds of the Swiss Alps after being named to lead Australia into Fed Cup battle next month. World No39 Jarmila Gajdosova and the 64th-ranked Jelena Dokic are vying for the second singles berth, while French Open mixed doubles champion Casey Dellacqua rounds out Australia's team for the World Group II tie against Switzerland on February 4-5.

Victory over the Swiss would thrust Australia into a playoff in April for the right to return to the elite eight-nation World Group in 2013.

Stosur and Gadjosova both crashed out in the first round of the Australian Open this week, but Australia captain David Taylor had no doubts his singles aces would quickly rebound.

"Sam and Jarka have had very challenging summers but I know they are extremely motivated to get back on track in Switzerland," he said. Australia were dumped from the World Group last year with a shock 3-2 playoff loss to Ukraine in Melbourne but haven't lost an away tie since 2008.

- Agencies

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