Sharapova, Li win clay openers in contrasting style
French Open champion Maria Sharapova was given a full workout in her 2013 clay court debut before the Russian top seed outlasted Czech Lucie Safarova 6-4, 6-7 (3-7), 6-3 at the Porsche Grand Prix on Thursday.
Sharapova, who is also the title holder in Stuttgart, laboured for 3 hours 9 minutes before clinching a second-round victory over the 25th-ranked Safarova on her fifth match point.
"The first match of the clay court season is always tough. It's nothing like practising," Sharapova said. "I knew this was going to be a tough game, so I am glad to get through."
China's Li Na, the second-seeded 2011 winner of the Paris Grand Slam, spent less than half the time on court in a 6-1, 6-2 win over Croatian qualifier Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in what was also her season debut on the surface.
The Porsche Grand Prix is the first major buildup for the French Open, which starts in late May. The four top seeds had byes into the second round.
Third-seeded German Angelique Kerber won 6-0, 6-4 over Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, but tournament No 4 Sara Errani of Italy, the losing 2012 French Open finalist, crashed against American qualifier Bethanie Mattek-Sands, 6-0, 4-6, 6-1.
Sharapova kick-started her 2012 clay campaign with the Stuttgart title en route to completing a career Grand Slam at Roland Garros, but had to fight hard Thursday.
Sharapova won the opening set thanks to a ninth-game break but gave away the second to Safarova in the tiebreak after saving set points in a fight back from 5-3 to 5-5.
Her first serve ration steadily improved and Sharapova never looked back after breaking for 4-2 in the final set. She wrapped up matters on the fifth match point with a little help from the net cord.
"I've had a few three hour games in my career, so I knew I just had to keep fighting until the end. That's when it's the time to get the game-plan going and calm down a little bit," she said.
While Sharapova is a regular cover girl in sports and fashion magazines, Li was still smitten by being picked by Time Magazine last week as cover girl and included in their 100 Most Influential People list.
The immensely popular Li was the first Asian to win a Grand Slam singles title two years ago in Paris, and is a two-time Australian Open runner-up.
"Of course I was surprised," she said after Thursday's match, adding that she is keeping her feet firmly on the ground as "a wife and a good player."
That showed on court where she only faced some resistance from Lucic-Baroni late in the first, when she failed to serve out the set at 5-0, and early in the second set.
"It's always tough when you change to a new surface so I'm excited to win my first match on clay for the season," Li said.
Former Wimbledon champion and fifth seed Petra Kvitova rallied to beat 2011 winner Julia Goerges of Germany 2-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-2, 2008 French Open winner Ana Ivanovic prevailed 6-4, 6-3 over eighth-seeded Russian Nadia Petrova, German Sabine Lisicki outlasted former world No 1 Jelena Jankovic 7-6 (7-3), 7-5, and Kazakhstan's Yaroslava Shvedova was a 7-5, 6-4 winner over Carla Suarez-Navarro of Spain.
Li now plays Kvitova in Friday's quarterfinals, Sharapova faces Ivanovic, Lisicki meets Mattek-Sands and Kerber takes on Shvedova.