Maria Sharapova’s clay-court revival is gathering pace after the Russian eased past Romanian big-hitter Irina-Camelia Begu at the Madrid Open on Monday.
Sharapova arrived in Spain on the back of four consecutive defeats but two wins, the latest a 7-5, 6-1 victory over Begu, have sent the 31-year-old into the last 16.
France’s Kristina Mladenovic will now await Sharapova, who is showing signs of rhythm ahead of the French Open later this month, which she won in 2012 and 2014.
It was here in Madrid that Sharapova lost a heated contest to Eugenie Bouchard last year, in what was only her second tournament back following a 15-month suspension for taking the banned drug meldonium.
Sharapova has struggled for form and fitness since, with a niggling thigh injury curtailing her comeback. She was trounced by Angelique Kerber at the Australian Open in January and went on to lose opening matches in Doha, Indian Wells and Stuttgart.
But, now ranked 52nd in the world, Sharapova was aggressive from the baseline against Begu and while there were a few more errors than she would have liked, she delivered in the pressure moments.
After an exchange of breaks midway through the first set, Sharapova broke at 6-5 to clinch the frame after two booming forehand winners.
Begu hit back with a break in the opening game of the second but Sharapova responded with two breaks of her own, the second after a sweeping backhand into the corner.
She never looked back and, leading 5-1, Sharapova sealed victory after 92 minutes when a Begu forehand hit the net.