Three to see: Sharapova, Pliskova serve up Saturday blockbuster

 - Michael Beattie

Sharapova v Pliskova, Halep v Petkovic and Coric v Schwartzman light up Saturday's schedule in Paris.

Maria Sharapova Karolina Pliskova.
One to watch: Maria Sharapova vs Karolina Pliskova

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Two-time champion Maria Sharapova’s return to Roland-Garros for the first time since 2015 is off to a promising start, with workmanlike wins over Richel Hogenkamp and Donna Vekic. But the challenge only gets harder from here: No.6 seed Karolina Pliskova has one of the best serves on the women’s tour and has been red-hot on clay in 2018.

Head-to-head history

Sharapova came out on top when the duo faced off in the second rubber of the 2015 Fed Cup final in straight sets, and also beat Petra Kvitova to keep Russia in the tie, but the Czechs ultimately triumphed on home turf in Prague. Pliskova had recently exited the US Open in the first round; a year later she would embark on a stunning run to the final, reached three further Grand Slam quarter-finals and the Roland-Garros semis over the course of the next five majors.

Form coming in

Pliskova has been on a clay-court surge in 2018, sparked by a victory over former world No.1 Angelique Kerber on Fed Cup duty in April. A nine-match streak followed as the 26-year-old claimed the Stuttgart title before reaching the semis in Madrid, a run that included wins over both of last year’s Roland-Garros finalists, Jelena Ostapenko and Simona Halep. Sharapova’s clay preparations ended on a high note too, with a quarter-final in Madrid and semi-final run in Rome.

Roland-Garros history

It’s the first meeting between the duo in Paris, where 2012 and 2014 champion Sharapova has arguably produced her most consistent results at the majors. Only once since her 2003 debut has the former world No.1 departed before the fourth round, back in 2010. For last year’s semi-finalist Pliskova, this is just the second trip to Paris during which she has won back-to-back matches.

Tactical duel

Don’t expect a bevy of extended rallies. Pliskova is a very different prospect today compared to the player Sharapova faced back in 2015, but movement on clay is not her strong suit. When her serve is clicking, however, there is very little her opponents can do. “I have to serve better than I have been and take care of the return,” Sharapova said. “But that side of the game, I feel, has improved in the last few months and I like the challenge of coming up against a really good server.”

Simona Halep, Roland Garros 2018, Simple Dames, 1er Tour©Cedric Lecocq / FFT
Simona Halep vs Andrea Petkovic

Ground-pass gold on Court 18. The careers of two of the most popular players on the WTA tour have diverged markedly since their semi-final showdown at Roland-Garros in 2014. Simona Halep, the victor that day, is now the world No.1 and a veteran of three Grand Slam finals, two of them in Paris, while Andrea Petkovic, the No.28 seed four years ago, has redoubled her efforts to return to the sharp end of the sport this season. A stirring win over Kristina Mladenovic in the first round was followed by a professional display against Bethanie Mattek-Sands to reach the third round for the first time since 2015, where Halep awaits having overcome an early wobble to cruise past American Alison Riske, before subduing Taylor Townsend. Can she make it seven wins in a row against the German?

Borna Coric vs Diego Schwartzman

This should be fun. Borna Coric’s Roland-Garros campaign began with a fine four-set victory over No.22 seed Philipp Kohlschreiber, while No.11 seed Diego Schwartzman is yet to drop a set, Calvin Hemery and Adam Pavlasek both dispatched for identical 6-1 6-3 6-1 scorelines. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s the Croatian world No.40 who arrives with two previous victories over Schwartzman, having beaten him in straight sets in both Winston-Salem in 2015 and last year on the clay of Marrakech. But the pocket-rocket Argentine is in fine form in 2018, having won the Rio de Janeiro title in February and reaching a career-high ranking of No.12 last week. Full of invention, he can expect a stern examination against the energetic Croatian.