Sharapova battles past Barty in Rome opener

Three-time champion Maria Sharapova booked an intriguing second-round meeting with Dominika Cibulkova thanks to a three-set victory over No.16 seed Ashleigh Barty at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia, 7-5, 3-6, 6-2 in Tuesday's first round.
Sharapova's victory, her 34th career match won in the Italian capital, came after a two-and-a-half hour marathon and a lengthy rain delay on Next Gen Arena in the first-ever meeting between the two players. 
Making her main draw debut in Rome, Barty stretched the five-time Grand Slam champion to a decider - just as she did to Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki last week in Rome - but again came off second-best in a lengthy defeat. 
The World No.18 put up stern resistance against the 2011, 2012 and 2015 champion in the match's final game, saving two match points, but struck back-to-back unforced errors to put Sharapova safely through to the second round.
"I kind of felt like I played three different matches within the match because of the way the court played, the way that she played, the shadows, the little bit of a breeze that we had out there - a lot going on," Sharapova said after the match. 
"I think it was a really good way to end the match, to get that win, to take care of those break points when it mattered, to save the break points on my serve. I felt like there's a lot of positives at the end of that match."
The outcome might've proved different had it not been for a pivotal swing early in the decider, as Sharapova held serve in a crucial 1-1 game from 0-40 down after having failed to convert on three break points of her own in the previous game.
Buoyed by her escape, the Russian broke serve in the next game, and dropped just three points behind her delivery for the rest of the encounter before again breaking for the match.
The victory snaps a four-match losing skid for the Russian in deciding sets, as she last won a three-set match against American Alison Riske in the second round of the Shenzhen Open in January. 
Conversely, the Australian No.1 has now dropped her last two three-setters on Europe's red clay, having won her first five this season.
"She made me hit a lot of balls, and that's the reason why she's doing so well, seeded here and had the results that she has," Sharapova said.
"This tournament has been special in my career, and brought me some great matches. I'm a little bit more relieved this year...and just playing, and not worrying about anything else, which is nice. The beauty of what we do is you don't know until you go out and you play. Sometimes, you feel your best and you play great and you come out losing the match, and sometimes you don't play so well and you come out winning the match."
Sharapova and Cibulkova will next face off for the seventh time overall in their careers, having split six career meetings.
The two have not played in over four years, as Cibulkova defeated Sharapova in three sets in the fourth round of the 2014 Australian Open on her way to the final, and the Slovak leads 2-1 in clay court meetings between the two.
"It's been a while since I played her, and she's always been a very tough opponent for me to play in my career. We've always had very difficult matches," Sharapova said.
"Especially on clay, she's a grinder, she makes you hit a lot of balls. I'm certainly not afraid of that. I shouldn't be...I should be ready and capable and make sure that I'm ready for that other ball. I'd like to see myself move forward a little bit more than I did today, not waiting for the ball to keep coming back and getting her back in the point."