MELBOURNE -- Maria Sharapova has carved out a nice career for herself winning the first-week matches she's supposed to. On Friday in Melbourne, she did it again, handling Ohio native Lauren Davis 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-0 to reach the fourth round of the Australian Open.
The first and last sets required a total of 56 minutes, 21 minutes less than the dodgy second set in which Sharapova, the No. 5 seed, came temporarily unstrung.
"Yeah, I felt like I made it a little bit more difficult than I should have," Sharapova said. "I definitely had a letup at 2-1, 30-love. You know, felt like I was hitting the ball well, doing the right things to get in that position, then let up. In a Grand Slam environment against anyone, you can't expect to get away with it, and I didn't in the second set.
"But overall, really happy with how I came out in the third and stepped up, considering it's been, you know, many weeks since I've been in that position. So I was happy with the way I finished. I think I can take a lot of good things from that."
Sharapova now heads into the second week with some daunting obstacles looming in her path.
Earlier, it appeared Sharapova might be the beneficiary of some terrific luck when Kateryna Bondarenko took the first set from No. 12 seed Belinda Bencic. But Bencic, an 18-year-old Swiss phenom, rallied to win in three sets to set up a fourth-round match with Sharapova. Bencic is more than capable of threatening Sharapova; last summer in Toronto, Bencic took out current world No. 1 Serena Williams and No. 2 Simona Halep to win the title.
"An impressive player," Sharapova said. "A newer generation that's already established herself in the past season, beaten a lot of top players. It's a tough fourth round. We haven't played against each other before, but I'm sure we'll be playing many times. It's great that we can start here."
The winner of that contest probably would face Williams, the defending champion, in the quarterfinals.
This looked like a mismatch at the outset. Sharapova has won 35 WTA titles, compared with zero for Davis, a 22-year-old who is ranked No. 103. Moreover, Sharapova, at 6-foot-2, is one of the tallest professional players, whereas Davis, a full foot shorter, is one of the shortest. Sharapova has five Grand Slam titles, including the Australian Open in 2008, when she defeated Ana Ivanovic in the final; Davis was trying to reach the fourth round of a Grand Slam for the first time.
Sharapova broke serve for the first time when Davis was serving at 1-2. At 30-all, Davis stroked a wild backhand long. Then, Sharapova threw herself into a weak second serve, and Davis' forehand reply sailed long. That was all the space Sharapova needed to win the first frame.
Davis actually took a 4-2 lead in the second when Sharapova seemed to lose concentration, but she couldn't hold serve in the seventh game with a flurry of errors. When they arrived at the tiebreaker, it seemed experience would win out. Sure enough, when Sharapova won a brutal, 27-stroke rally to level the tiebreaker at 5-all, she was two points from victory. But Davis prevailed, winning the second set when a tight Sharapova forehand fell wide.
Sharapova had lost all of seven games in four previous sets, and now she had lost that many in one set.
Not surprisingly, her concentration returned, and Sharapova bageled Davis in the third. It was her 600th career WTA match win.
"Oh, wow, I've won 600 matches?" she said. "Is this is a friendly reminder that I'm getting old?
"You know you're in a Grand Slam environment, third round, and against an opponent you haven't played ... that's fired up and is not going to just give you the match, and that's exactly what happened. I am quite happy that I was able to step up in the third set. That was very important."
The category of second serve was particularly revealing. Sharapova won 17 of those 29 critical points. Davis also won 17 second-serve points -- but lost 31.
Small consolation, but Davis has this pleasant takeaway: In the first round, she took out No. 26 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in three sets.
And now Sharapova strides into the second week, which has a far higher degree of difficulty. She is 22-1 at Grand Slams against Americans not named Williams.
Sharapova has never played Bencic but will know of her recent conquests. Against Williams, Sharapova is an abysmal 2-18 for her career.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.