Former world number one Maria Sharapova continues her comeback trail from her 15-month doping ban. The five-time Grand Slam champion has understandably been rusty in some of her matches upon her return. Nonetheless, the competitive edge from the three-time Internazionali BNL d'Italia champion has not wilted. Sharapova will also wait on the French Federation Tennis' decision on whether the former two-time French Open winner will get a wildcard into the main draw or qualifying. Nevertheless, Sharapova will continue to let her tennis do the talking as the Russian, who is currently ranked at 211 in the world is working her way back up the rankings.
Sharapova's quest for a fourth title in the Eternal City continues against 16th seed Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. The 35-year-old Croat comes into Rome with a respectable a 17-9 win-loss record. The 16th seed's biggest result of 2017 so far was advancing to her first Grand Slam semifinal at the Australian Open in 18 years. Lucic-Baroni recorded good victories over 2012 Wimbledon finalist Agnieszka Radwanska and last year's US Open finalist Karolina Pliskova before she was humbled in straight sets by the eventual champion Serena Williams in straight sets.
The Croat advanced to another semifinal in Acapulco before losing to eventual champion Lesia Tsurenko, and despite an early exit in Indian Wells, the two-time Grand Slam semifinalist put that right in Miami by reaching the quarterfinals. Lucic-Baroni defeated Radwanska once again in Miami but she lost to Pliskova, who gained revenge for that loss in Melbourne. Her clay court season has been good as she reached the semifinals of the green clay court event in Charleston, defeating last year's French Open quarterfinalist and semifinalist Shelby Rogers and Kiki Bertens, unfortunately, she lost to Jelena Ostapenko in the semifinals. Lucic-Baroni wasn't due to play Sharapova in the first round in Madrid but because of Radwanska's withdrawal, she had to play the Russian and lost in three sets.
Meanwhile, Sharapova's comeback to professional tennis hasn't been very bad. The former world number one returned at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart. The three-time Internazionali BNL d'Italia champion recorded good wins over 2015 US Open finalist Roberta Vinci, compatriot Ekaterina Makarova, Anett Kontaveit before she lost to an in-form Kristina Mladenovic in a high quality three set encounter. Sharapova went on to the Mutua Madrid Open, where she won the title in 2014. She defeated Lucic-Baroni in the opening round before losing to Eugenie Bouchard in a three-set thriller. The Russian may have liked to have gone further in Madrid but the tennis she has portrayed has been very good, and she is one of the favourites to win the French Open.
Their path to the second round
Lucic-Baroni had a tough first round encounter with 2015 French Open finalist Lucie Safarova. The Croat trailed by a break in the opening set but she recovered to win it. Safarova won the next set but Lucic-Baroni managed to weather the storm and defeated the former world number five, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3. Sharapova recorded her fifth successive victory over Christina McHale, 6-4, 6-2 to reach the second round at the Foro Italico, and the victory means at minimum she will be able to enter the qualifying draw at Wimbledon, but the Russian, who won Wimbledon in 2004, will more likely avoid that route and get into the main draw either with a wildcard or by her own accord with her ranking.
Breakdown of their rivalry
Sharapova and Lucic-Baroni have met on two occasions and both of their matches have taken place on clay. The former world number one cruised past this year's Australian Open semifinalist, 6-3, 6-0 in the first round of the French Open in 2011. As aforementioned, the duo met last week in the first round at the Mutua Madrid Open, which Sharapova came back from a set down to dispatch the Croat, 4-6, 6-4, 6-0.
Who reaches the next round?
The two-time French Open champion will be looking to continue to play at a high level against the 16th seed. The Russian will always serve double faults, however, when her serve is firing on all cylinders, she can be incredibly tough to break. Furthermore, Sharapova's forehand does a lot of damage on clay, and she likes to dominate play from the baseline. When she is approaching the net, to finish off points, she likes to hit a swinging volley instead of taking her time and volleying at the net. Furthermore, despite being very tall, Sharapova has good movement on the court, which makes her, even more, harder to beat. On the other hand, Lucic-Baroni caused Sharapova some problems in Madrid last week but she was unable to sustain her level of play. The Croat will need to get Sharapova moving around the court as although the Russian has good movement, sometimes it can be harder for the former world number one to move from side to side. Lucic-Baroni may want to throw in a few drop shots to upset the rhythm of Sharapova's game and try to beat her. This will be a hard-hitting match on the clay courts at the Foro Italico in Rome but the three-time champion should get over the line and reach the third round.
This is the fourth match scheduled on the day but the first match scheduled for the evening session on the Centre Court at not before 7:30 pm local time, and the winner of this match will face top seed Angelique Kerber or a qualifier in 2014 French Open semifinalist Andrea Petkovic or Anett Kontaveit.
Prediction: Sharapova in straight sets.