If they were to pursue a career in fashion design as a side project to their day jobs, Maria Sharapova is certain she’d be on a different page to unconventional American Bethanie Mattek-Sands.
And for the better part of their first round Australian Open women’s singles clash at Rod Laver Arena under lights, they were on a different page as the Russian progressed 6-3 6-4 on a steamy 32-degree night.
With the earlier Rafael Nadal-Bernard Tomic showdown fizzling before it really got going, the crowd was hoping this one was going the distance, but the signs were not good early on.
Sharapova was cruising at 4-0 before a couple of cases of the ball-toss yips set in.
Seagulls circling may well have prompted her cause for concern.
“If I could use that as an excuse, then sure,” she said.
It was distraction enough.
Mattek-Sands – with her blonde and purple hair and wearing a skirt that looked more like a jar of coloured jelly beans beneath her bright pink tank top – broke to get on the board, prompting a member of supporters group The Herd to do half a lap of the stadium dressed as the Pope and carrying an oversized version of cricket’s Holy Grail, The Ashes Urn.
Serving to stay in the set, Mattek-Sands attempted a shot almost as outrageous as one of her playing outfits; a drop shot that bounced twice before it reached the net.
An off-forehand winner sealed the opening set for Sharapova, but the American began to find her range in the second, using her solid net game to keep the world No.3 on the run and digging deep to save a break point at 1-1 with a low backhand volley winner.
The Herd soon transformed their rolling supporters group into Batman and co. Their costume change coincided with a surge by Mattek-Sands, the world No. 41 bringing up a pair of break points with a forehand winner and converting to level at 3-3.
Her unlikely rally was to little avail. Sharapova broke again, and put an end to proceedings after 99 minutes, her 29 winners to the American’s 18 the telling statistic.
Afterwards, Sharapova said she was relieved to be back on court at a Grand Slam having missed last year’s US Open with a shoulder injury, even if it was on such a hot night.
“You know, the conditions were tough for everyone. I think we got the least today, considering how late we played. But it was still pretty warm out there. Warm enough to have to use some ice vests,” she said.
“But, you know, looking at her results in the last, you know, couple of weeks and last year and the matches that I've played against her, I knew that it was going to be a tough match.
“No matter what I had to do, I wanted to get through it, and I think that's what it was about today.”
By Dan Imhoff. Australian Open 2014.