By Greg Stutchbury
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Maria Sharapova hammered her way into the quarter-finals of the Australian Open Monday but only after some tense moments in a third-set decider when Germany's Sabine Lisicki had her hanging on by her finger nails.
The fourth-seeded Russian had to blunt the powerful ground strokes and blistering service returns of the 14th seeded Lisicki and fought off five break points in the third game of the final set to turn the match her way.
The Russian's confidence grew enough for her to break Lisicki's serve in the sixth game of the set, which essentially sealed the victory and she ran out a 3-6 6-2 6-3 winner.
The 24-year-old had walked onto Rod Laver Arena a heavy favorite having conceded just five games in her previous three matches and spent only three hours, 29 minutes on court.
In contrast, Lisicki had been hampered by an abdominal injury that forced her to withdraw from the Auckland Classic quarter-finals and out of Sydney altogether.
Knowing that old rival Serena Williams would not be waiting for her in the quarter-finals after the American was bundled out earlier by Ekaterina Makarova, Sharapova raced out to a 3-0 lead and seemed destined for another early night.
Lisicki, however, finally found her range and reeled off six successive games to win the first set when Sharapova blasted a backhand service return well over the baseline.
A nervous looking Sharapova, well aware that if she did not stop the momentum she would be joining Williams on an early flight home, was in danger of losing her first service game of the second set before she attacked the net twice and managed to fight off the German and hold serve.
She then began to control the pace of the match, stopping Lisicki's high-paced game to seal the second set in 42 minutes.
"She's a really solid player," Sharapova said of Lisicki, who she beat in last year's Wimbledon semi-finals.
"If you play to her strengths, if you give her time that's what she really does best, she gets a good strike on the ball and can hit a good winner from any side of the court.
"But obviously I was trying to create those opportunities where maybe she had to go for a little bit more and force the errors out of her."
Lisicki attacked Sharapova's serve in the third set and held five break points in the third game before Sharapova slammed a forehand winner to hold and screeched a loud "Come On" before she broke Lisicki in the sixth game that gave her the momentum to win.
"I think it (when Sharapova held serve) was quite important, but also the game where she broke me," Lisicki said.
"It was very close, the entire match. When the match is that close, really every single point counts at that moment.
"I thought it was a very good game. Unfortunately she made some great serves in the third set when I had breakpoints (and there was) not much I could do there at that moment.
"But I kept fighting until the very last point, and unfortunately it wasn't enough."
(Editing by Mark Meadows)