Sharapova on course for Wimbledon after opening win in Rome

Sharapova on course for Wimbledon after opening win in Rome

Maria Sharapova of Russia returns the ball during her match against Christina Michael of US in the first round of the Italian Open on Monday. — Reuters

ROME — Maria Sharapova guaranteed herself a spot in the Wimbledon qualifying tournament with a first-round victory against American Christina McHale at the Italian Open on Monday.

The Russian former world No. 1, given a wildcard to compete in Rome after returning from a 15-month doping ban, dropped serve three times in a scrappy opening set, but won 6-4, 6-2 to reach round two.

Sharapova faces a battle to raise her ranking enough to qualify for the grasscourt grand slam by right and spare organizers the dilemma of whether to award her a wildcard into the main draw of the tournament she won in 2004.

Should the 30-year-old three-times Rome champion, ranked 211 in the world, reach the semifinals, she would almost certainly earn an automatic Wimbledon main draw slot ahead of the May 22 rankings cut-off date.

Her second-round opponent will be Croatian veteran Mirjana Luci-Baroni who she beat in the Madrid tournament last week before losing a grudge match against Eugenie Bouchard.

Mirjana Lucic-Baroni beat former French Open finalist Lucie Safarova 7-5, 4-6, 6-3, and if Sharapova wins this tie, she could face top-ranked Angelique Kerber in the third round.

Kerber is confident the left hamstring injury she picked up at last week’s Madrid Open will not threaten her French Open hopes. The German two-time Grand Slam champion was forced to quit while trailing Canadian Eugenie Bouchard but arrived in Rome on Sunday ready to play in the last big claycourt event before Roland Garros begins on May 28.

“I am feeling much better, I mean I did a check after my match in Madrid and I’m lucky it’s not too bad, it’s just a muscle strain,” she was quoted as saying on the WTA  “I’ve had a lot of treatments. I arrived last night, practiced this morning and feeling good.”

Tournament organizers were criticized for giving a wild card to Sharapova instead of former French Open champion Francesca Schiavone, an Italian. But fans cheered and held up signs of encouragement for Sharapova.

Canadian Bouchard had called for five-times grand slam champion Sharapova to be banned for life after testing positive for heart drug meldonium at last year’s Australian Open, referring to the Russian as a “cheater”.

Several other players have criticized the decision of tournament organizers to welcome Sharapova back so readily.

If Sharapova fails to reach the semifinals in Rome, the Wimbledon Championships wildcard committee, which meets on June 20, would have to decide whether to fast-track her into the main draw or let her take her chances in qualifying.

The qualifying tournament is held the week before in the quaint surroundings of Roehampton — potentially creating a security headache if Sharapova plays.

At a recent news conference All England Club officials said this year’s qualifying tournament, previously free for the public, would be ticketed and restricted to 1,000 fans.

There will also be video coverage and an improved players’ lounge, although All England Club chief executive Richard Lewis said the upgrades had nothing to do with Sharapova’s possible participation.

“I know it does seem very convenient timing, but it is actually unrelated, genuinely unrelated, and we know that qualifying needs to continue to be improved, just like we improve facilities here at the Championships,” he said.

Sharapova will find out on Tuesday whether she has been handed a wildcard to this month’s French Open.

In men’s action, David Goffin rallied past qualifier Thomaz Bellucci 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-4, and Tomas Berdych required five set points to close out the opening set in a 7-6 (7), 6-4 win over Australian Open quarterfinalist Mischa Zverev.

Berdych matched his coach, Goran Ivanisevic, with 599 career victories. Only 24 players have earned 600 or more wins. Also, Sam Querrey eliminated Lucas Pouille, a semifinalist last year, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (8).

Raonic named in Team World for Laver Cup

Canadian Milos Raonic, ranked No. 6 in the world, is the first player to be named in the rest of the world team that will take on Europe in the inaugural Laver Cup from Sept. 22-24 in Prague this year.

The Laver Cup, a three-day competition modeled on golf’s Ryder Cup, will pit a team of six top players from Europe against six of their counterparts from the rest of the world.

Players will officially qualify based on their post-Wimbledon rankings, and the teams will be finalized following the US Open in September.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are already confirmed to play for Team Europe, with Tomas Berdych committing to play if qualified or selected.

“I can’t wait to be part of the first ever Laver Cup. It’s a tremendous opportunity and I’m really looking forward to being part of this unique team competition,” Raonic said in a statement on Monday.

“Taking on the Europeans is no easy task. They’ve already got Roger and Rafa on board and we’ve all seen how well they’ve started 2017.”

Team World is being captained by John McEnroe, while Bjorn Borg will captain Europe during the tournament, which will comprise two singles and a doubles match each day.

“Milos is incredibly impressive, both as a player and a person, and I’m very pleased he’s committed to playing the Laver Cup in September,” McEnroe said in the same statement.

“We know Team Europe is incredibly strong on paper, and that Roger and Rafa have both had an unbelievable start to the year,” he said.

“But we are putting together a bunch of players who I have no doubt will be the next generation of Grand Slam winners, and Milos is definitely up there as a contender.” — Reuters