MELBOURNE -- No. 2 Maria Sharapova narrowly avoided the biggest upset of the tournament so far, saving two match points late in the third set to defeat No. 150 Alexandra Panova 6-1, 4-6, 7-5 in the second round of the Australian Open on Wednesday.
Sharapova cruised through the first set in just 26 minutes before Panova began to find her range. Coming into the tournament, the 25-year-old Russian qualifier never won a match in the main draw of a Slam, but for two sets Wednesday she played at a level more befitting a Top 20 player. Powerful and rangy, she outserved Sharapova and matched her power from the baseline. Suddenly, Sharapova's level dropped. She struggled to find her rhythm off the ground and on her serve. She hit just eight unforced errors in the first set but struck 43 in the remaining two sets.
After taking the second set 6-4, Panova raced to a 4-1 double-break lead in the final set. Sharapova was able to get one break back but Panova served for the match at 5-4. She saw her first match point at 40-30 but Sharapova came up with her first gutsy save of the day, gunning a forehand down the line winner that landed just in. Two points later Panova would earn her second match point. Sharapova stepped up to gun another forehand winner that left no margin for error.
"I thought my thought process through the match to that point was pretty negative," Sharapova said. "I think I was dwelling too much on my mistakes, what I was doing wrong, not really being in the present, something that I'm really usually good at. At that point when you're behind and you feel like you're making a lot of errors, you don't feel like you have a good rhythm out there, I just really tried to take it a point at a time, think positively, and change my thought process a little bit.
"When other things aren't working, maybe the mental side of things will help you out. I think in the end maybe that's what did."
Demoralized after coming so close to pulling off the biggest win of her career, Panova was broken and didn't win another game in the match. Sharapova broke for the win two games later after two hours and 32 minutes.
"I'm just happy to get through," a relieved Sharapova said after the match. "I was two points from being out of the tournament. Just didn't play my best today ... I think she played a pretty inspired match."
Panova played the best match of her career and finished with 20 winners to 36 unforced errors. Sharapova hit 38 winners to 51 unforced errors. Sharapova will play either No. 31 Zarina Diyas or Anna Schmiedlova in the third round.