“I did a good job of winning the longer rallies, even though that’s not really what I wanted to get myself into,” said Sharapova afterwards. It was the 30-year-old’s first appearance in Doha since 2013 and her first match since losing to Angelique Kerber in the third round of the Australian Open last month.
Sharapova returned to tennis last April after completing a 15-month ban for failing a drug test. A jubilant Niculescu described it afterwards as “a very good win” as well as “a tough match”.
Niculescu’s reward is to play either Magdalena Rybarikova or wildcard Fatma Al-Nabhani in the next round.
Nine of the top ten women’s players are competing in Doha this week, but arguably Sharapova was the biggest attraction.