Five thoughts from Day 5 of the Australian Open ...
1. Maria Sharapova sends a warning shot: She may have completed the career Grand Slam and finished No. 2 in 2012, but somehow Sharapova became the woman on the outside looking in heading into the Australian Open. Blame the beatdowns she took from the other two members of the WTA's Big Three, Victoria Azarenka (6-3, 6-0 in last year's Australian Open final) and Serena Williams (6-0, 6-1 at the London Olympics, among others), which laid bare her glaring weaknesses.
She couldn't match Williams' power and movement. She couldn't hit through Azarenka's consistency. Her serve was a liability. She wanted those head-to-head victories so badly that she flat-out crumbled. Until Sharapova can notch big wins over either player (2-10 vs. Williams all time, 3-6 vs. Azarenka since 2010), she'll always be considered third best.
Sure, she dominated her first two rounds in Melbourne, winning both matches 6-0, 6-0. Big whoop. We know Sharapova can trample unseeded players. The question was how she'd react against a formidable opponent. Like Venus Williams on Friday.
Despite the justified hype, this one turned out to be a complete dud. Sharapova rolled 6-1, 6-3 with a combination of clutch serving, aggressive hitting and consistent returning.
"Despite what she's ranked or seeded, it doesn't matter when you go out on the court," Sharapova said. "She's been there. She's experienced enough to know no matter if you're playing the third round, the quarters, or the final, you have to be ready. I certainly was. Since the draw came out, I was really looking forward to that matchup."
She ate up Venus' serve all night. Sharapova has clearly worked on her return, an important development if she hopes to rewrite her rivalries with Serena and Azarenka. Last year, Sharapova's returns were either completely useless against Serena's serve or, as they were against Azarenka, unreliable. On Friday, her takeback was noticeably short, and she handled Venus' wide serve to her forehand remarkably well, cutting off the angle and redirecting for winners. On match point, Sharapova let out a roaring celebration -- five fist pumps -- that made you check your draw sheet to make sure this was just the third round. She wanted this one.
"I was just really pumped," she said. "Why shouldn't I be?"
Sharapova played one of the finest matches she's played in years, recalling her form here in 2008 when she won it all without dropping a set. That Sharapova was vintage, one we haven't seen since thanks largely to a shoulder injury. She may not be able to solely serve her way to titles anymore, but this new return of serve she's working on? That might just be the answer.
2. Venus gets a reality check: Even with tempered expectations, this was an unexpected result. Venus had been on-song since last fall when she finished the season with a minor title in Luxembourg, and she cruised into the third round having dropped a mere seven games. So, yeah, I didn't see a rout coming. Sharapova neutralized Venus' biggest weapon, her first serve, and had no problems staying in the rally with her off the ground. The only surge from Venus came late in the second set when she was finally able to get to the net to finish points. Too little, too late.
This is where the hard reality begins to set in. Venus, 32, will continue to win matches. That's a credit to her work ethic, natural talent and experience. She's learned to manage her autoimmune disease and her schedule to put herself in positions to win. But her game, as powerful as it is, has been passed. Venus is at her best when she's willing to get to the net as much as possible, hence five of her seven major titles at Wimbledon. If she has any chance to be a relevant competitor on tour, Venus has to commit to more aggressive net play. It will shorten points and matches, help her conserve energy and plays right into her skills. But the more and more I see her trying to go baseline to baseline against top players, the more I'm left wondering "What's the point in all this?"
3. No American men standing: This post-Andy Roddick world is looking downright post-Apocalyptic. Sam Querrey's 7-6 (6), 7-5, 6-4 loss to Stanislas Wawrinka means that there will be no American men in the fourth round for the second straight year.
The top-ranked American, John Isner, pulled out of the Australian Open with a knee injury two weeks ago. Mardy Fish, who had heart surgery last May, withdrew two months ago and hasn't played since the U.S. Open. Brian Baker tore his meniscus in the second round, and Donald Young crashed out in qualifying. Unlike the U.S. women, there are no teens to get excited about, either.
4. South African rising: Hats off to Kevin Anderson, the University of Illinois product who took out No. 22 Fernando Verdasco 4-6, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2 to become the only man outside the top 16 to reach the round of 16. The big-serving South African is into the fourth round of a Slam for the first time in his career, where he'll play No. 5 Tomas Berdych. Last time I heard, Anderson, whose wife, Kelsey, is American, was in the process of securing U.S. citizenship. Hey, we'll beef up our ranks however we can. 5. Novak Djokovic keeps rolling: The two-time defending champion made big headlines Friday, but only after he swept No. 31 Radek Stepanek 6-4, 6-3, 7-5. First, he ventured to the TV booth to teach Jim Courier how to pronounce his name. Then, in his press conference, Djokovic slammed Lance Armstrong. On the court, Djokovic hasn't dropped a set, running his Australian Open winning streak to 17 matches.