-- MELBOURNE, Australia -- For a while on Wednesday, it looked as if we were going to have a bigger Australian upset than Air Supply being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Maria Sharapova took the first set easily (6-1) against No. 150 Alexandra Panova, only to lose the second set and then fall behind 4-1 in the third set while struggling with her shots inside the court. The most recent time Sharapova lost to someone ranked that low was five years ago, and even then, it was to (who else?) Serena Williams during her comeback from injury.
Sharapova faced two match points, with the competition getting so tense the reporters watching it on their TV monitors were responding almost as loudly as Shazza's grunting. In the end, she fought back tenaciously to beat Panova 7-5.
Of course, Sharapova is not one who surrenders easily. In fact, the closer her back is to the wall, the tougher she gets. At the French Open last year, she lost her first set three times -- against Samantha Stosur, Garbine Muguruza and Eugenie Bouchard -- before rallying to beat each opponent and going on to win the tournament.
What should we expect from Maria going forward?
Matt Wilansky: I'm just going to say it, Jim: Sharapova has more backbone than any player in the game. Down a first match point, Sharapova turned and unleashed a clean, forehand return winner about as loud as the shrilling cacophony that comes out of her mouth. Seriously, who does that? In 2011, Novak Djokovic was down a match point to Roger Federer in the US Open semis, and he hit the shot heard 'round the world to win the point and, ultimately, the match. It was so sizzling and took so much gumption, I am still shaking my head. With Sharapova, she pulls off these shots and doesn't think twice about it. Must be nice to have that innate instinct, no?
Jim Caple: The thing is, she did it again on the second match point. She is relentless. When she was down 4-1 in the third set and 30-0 in that game, another person in the media (I will not divulge the name) said, "It's over." As it turned out, he was right. But what was "over" was Panova's chance of winning. Sharapova was right where she wanted to be: back against the wall, on the edge of the cliff. "I'm the type of player that is aggressive, the one that's doing something out there, not really waiting for another person's mistake," she said. "Until the very end, I still try to dictate. I still try to find my way."
Matt Wilansky: I think I might know that media person well. A career in telepathy is not in my (I mean his) future. When you think about Sharapova's game, fluid and pretty are not the first words that come to mind. Her steely makeup has been the overarching factor in her success, which includes a career Grand Slam. Sharapova has a lot riding on the result here in Australia: She has a shot at the world No. 1 ranking as well as the title, of course. Sharapova littered the court with 51 unforced errors Wednesday, but that only underscores the freedom with which she strikes the ball.
Jim Caple: Of course, it also shows she did not play well for a long stretch, and perhaps she would not still be in the tournament had she faced a stronger opponent than one who has won exactly one Grand Slam main draw match in her career. "I think she became a little more tentative in that last game," Sharapova said. "Based on experience, you lift yourself up both mentally and physically." We'll see how she does in the next round -- whether she'll dominate from the start or have to claw back from the edge of defeat. Either way, you have to like her odds.
Matt Wilansky: As our colleague Peter Bodo wrote, Sharapova probably doesn't feel quite right if she's not fighting for dear life. Why the mundane when you can sink into a gulf, tread water for hours and then miraculously escape seemingly unscathed? Look, here's the thing: Sharapova is the No. 2 seed here and one of the favorites. Her match Wednesday shouldn't concern anyone attempting to vet her form. That's just her MO. And it's a winning formula.