MELBOURNE, Australia -- From the moment the Australian Open draw was released eight days ago, Maria Sharapova said she anticipated a clash with defending champion Caroline Wozniacki in the third round. "It was definitely a match I looked forward to," Sharapova said. "But obviously I had to get there first, and so did she."
The opportunity to challenge herself against one of the best players in the world was certainly tantalizing to Sharapova, but there was more behind her eagerness to play Wozniacki in Melbourne. The Dane was outspoken in the early months of Sharapova's return from a 15-month doping suspension two years ago, questioning the way in which the WTA handled her re-entry onto the tour. Then, when Wozniacki was bumped to an outside court at the 2017 US Open while Sharapova made her Grand Slam return on Arthur Ashe, Wozniacki had harsh words for the tournament's officials.
"Putting out a schedule where the No. 5 is playing on court five, fifth match on after 11 p.m., I think that's unacceptable," Wozniacki said back then. "And when you look on center court -- I understand completely the business side of things -- but someone who comes back from a drugs sentence, performance-enhancing drugs, and all of a sudden gets to play every single match on center court, I think that's a questionable thing to do."
Sharapova snapped back after her third-round win in New York, saying, "I'm in the fourth round. I don't know where she is." Wozniacki was ousted in Round 2.
This was their first meeting since that exchange. In their 10 previous head-to-head matchups over the past 11 years, Sharapova led 6-4. But until this week, she had never beaten Wozniacki at a Grand Slam, and she hadn't beaten her on a hard court since the final at Indian Wells in 2013. But that changed Friday. Sharapova beat the world No. 3, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, to reach the fourth round of the Australian Open.
"I felt very much in the moment [today]," Sharapova said in her postmatch news conference. "I felt present. These are really the types of matchups that I haven't had, where I could really challenge myself. To be in the grind and to have to figure out a way to be on top is what I missed. I don't really get many of those chances."
When asked whether the win felt particularly satisfying considering their recent off-court history, Sharapova said only, "I just really like winning. I'm really happy and proud of the way I competed today, and I'm into the fourth round. That's all that matters."
What she does with her next opportunity might matter even more. Since her return, Sharapova's results have been inconsistent at best. She made her Grand Slam return at the 2017 US Open after receiving a wild-card entry into the tournament, defeated then-No. 2 Simona Halep in the first round and advanced to the fourth round, where she lost to 16th-seeded Anastasija Sevastova.
Since then, Sharapova has seen the second week at a major only once. She has struggled with injuries and played only one tournament since losing in the fourth round at the US Open in September. This week, however, Sharapova has shown signs of the powerful, aggressive player who won five majors between 2004 and 2014. She dropped only three games in her first two matches in Melbourne, and her first-round 6-0, 6-0 drubbing of British player Harriet Dart was so ruthless and exacting that her opponent left the court in tears.
"Practice, lots of practice," Sharapova answered when asked what's made the difference this week. "But it's always different bringing that practice into match play. That's the one thing that was tough for me, to get back the hand-eye coordination after not playing for a long time. The return, the anticipation. Those are the types of things you lose being away from the game."
Against Wozniacki, Sharapova looked as sharp as she has against a top player in years. She returned well, attacked the net and smashed 37 winners -- to Wozniacki's 10. Down 4-1 in the opening set, Sharapova's body language read calm and confident, unfazed by the score. She won her next service game without giving up a point, then went on to win the next four games and take the set.
"In my mind, it didn't feel like 1-4," Sharapova said. "I challenged her from the very beginning. I had three break points in the first game, although I didn't take them. I felt like I was still putting the pressure on. Of course, 1-4 is a challenging score to come back from, but while I was there, I didn't think of it like that."
In that moment, Sharapova made a statement that she would not be intimidated by Wozniacki's ranking or their Grand Slam history -- or the fact that Wozniacki is the defending champ. She was going to dig in and play every point as if it were the first point of the match. "When you put yourself in those positions and you get through," Sharapova said, "those are great, great victories."
With her win, Sharapova opened the door to the possibility of a ninth different Grand Slam winner in as many tournaments. One of those potential players, 17-year-old unseeded American Amanda Anisimova, stamped a great upset of her own Friday afternoon, toppling No. 11 Aryna Sabalenka -- a player many picked to win her first Slam in Melbourne -- in straight sets.
Born in Freehold, New Jersey, to Russian parents who emigrated to the U.S. before she was born, Anisimova said after the match that Sharapova is a player she considers a role model in her life. "Maria is someone I've looked up to so much," Anisimova said. "I've always enjoyed watching her play and all of her interviews. She's an amazing athlete and a great person off the court, too."
As the luck of the draw would have it, if Sharapova and Anisimova both win their fourth-round matches -- Sharapova must beat Aussie golden girl Ashleigh Barty, and Anisimova faces No. 8 Petra Kvitova, a player she upset at Indian Wells last year -- they will face each other in the quarters. But as happens each Slam fortnight, only one storyline will play out to its fairytale ending.