Sharapova, Pennetta and Bouchard progress

Russian Sharapova, the second seed, made a fast start to overpower Belgian Yanina Wickmayer early on but then ran into much stiffer resistance before grinding out a 6-1 7-5 win after one hour and 45 minutes of baseline battle.

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Fifteenth-seeded Italian Pennetta overcame an initial bout of nerves to finish strong as she launched her title defence with a commanding 6-4 6-2 win over American Madison Brengle in the first match of the day on the stadium court.

Sharapova, champion at Indian Wells in 2006 and 2013, broke Wickmayer’s serve three times to sweep through the opening set in just over half an hour, a crunching forehand crosscourt winner putting her ahead 6-1.

However, the Belgian was a very different proposition in the second set which went comfortably with serve until a marathon 10th game where Wickmayer saved four match points before holding to level at 5-5.

Sharapova held serve to lead 6-5 and finally converted a sixth match point in the 12th when the Belgian hit a backhand long.

“She’s a tough opponent,” world number two Sharapova said in a courtside interview. “She hits the ball quite hard and has an unbelievable serve. I started the match well but the second set was a different story.”

The Russian will next meet Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, who brushed aside Belgian Kirsten Flipkens 6-2 6-4.

DOUBLES PROWESS

Pennetta, best known for her doubles prowess, broke Brengle’s serve once in a tightly contested opening set and twice more in the second to wrap up victory in 75 minutes at a sun-drenched Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

“I was nervous in the beginning,” the 33-year-old from Brindisi, a winner of 10 WTA titles, said after ending the match with a rasping forehand crosscourt winner.

“Last year here, I played so well and I have such good memories. This morning I woke up and I was a little bit shaky. So I was trying to be focused on what I had to do, and not rush.”

Pennetta will next face Australian Samantha Stosur, who beat American wildcard Taylor Townsend 6-4 6-2.

In Saturday’s evening encounter, sixth-seeded Canadian Eugenie Bouchard eased past Czech qualifier Lucie Hradecka 6-2 6-2.

The 21-year-old Bouchard, who reached the last four in Australia and France as well as the Wimbledon final in 2014, broke her opponent’s serve three times in each set to wrap up victory in under an hour.

In other matches, fourth seed Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark battled past Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur 7-6(3) 6-4 and fifth-seeded Serb Ana Ivanovic, the 2008 champion here, hammered Kazakhstan’s Yulia Putintseva 6-3 6-1.

(Editing by John O’Brien)

Seeds Djokovic, Murray and Nishikori all advance

Playing near-flawless tennis from the baseline, the Serb broke his opponent twice in each set to coast to victory in just under an hour on the showpiece stadium court at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

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Fourth seed Andy Murray erased memories of early losses at the venue with a 6-1 6-3 demolition of Canadian Vasek Pospisil and Japanese trailblazer Kei Nishikori recovered from an erratic start to beat American Ryan Harrison 6-4 6-4.

Djokovic, seeking a fourth title at Indian Wells, breezed through the opening set in just 25 minutes before sealing the win when Baghdatis hit a backhand long on the second match point.

“It went very well for me, a very solid performance from the beginning,” the world number one said courtside after improving his record this season to 15-2.

“I served well and from the baseline I didn’t give Marcos many chances to come back in the match. Great performance against a quality opponent, against somebody that was a former top-10 player and that knows how to play on a big stage.

“Of course, having won the title in Australia, it allows me to have and carry this confidence into every other event that is coming up in the season.”

Murray broke Pospisil’s serve three times in the opening set and twice in the second to ease to victory in 79 minutes on a sweltering afternoon.

Ousted in the opening round in 2011 and 2012, the 27-year-old Scot hit 14 winners and won five of his nine break point chances to dominate the match.

SMART MATCH

“I’ve struggled a bit in the last few years here so I decided to try and play a very solid match and adjust to the conditions,” world number four Murray said. “It was very hot and that made the ball pretty lively.

“Controlling the ball isn’t that easy. I thought I played quite a smart match.”

Nishikori, who became the first Asian male to reach a grand slam singles final at the U.S. Open last year, broke Harrison five times while losing his own serve on three occasions before sealing his win in just under an hour and a half.

“It was a bit up and down but I played well in the second set,” said the 25-year-old Japanese. “I was playing almost a perfect game.”

The fifth seed, who lost to Marin Cilic in last year’s U.S. Open final before ending a landmark season with four ATP World Tour titles, will next play Spaniard Fernando Verdasco, who beat Australia’s James Duckworth 6-2 7-6.

In other matches, 10th-seeded Croatian Cilic, back on the circuit after being troubled by a shoulder injury, was upset 6-4 6-4 by Argentine Juan Monaco while eighth-seeded Spaniard David Ferrer battled past Croatia’s Ivan Dodig 4-6 6-1 7-6.

(Editing by John O’Brien)

Ford ace Frosty over V8 rolling start

Despite completing a rare clean sweep, Ford gun Mark Winterbottom has had to defend his tactics after early carnage at the V8 Supercars exhibition round at the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday.

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Winterbottom pointed the finger at the rest of the field after some rivals came off second best from his strategy change in Sunday’s rolling start – a concept he described as “a shambles”.

Winterbottom became the first driver to sweep the non-championship round at Albert Park since Russell Ingall in 1998 when he led a Ford one-two for the fourth straight race.

He finished more than a second ahead of teammate Chaz Mostert and was two seconds faster than third-placed Holden ace Shane van Gisbergen on Sunday.

The man dubbed “Frosty” was all smiles after receiving a major confidence boost at the non-championship round – then the rolling start was mentioned.

As pole sitter Winterbottom could decide when to begin the race and accelerate in the rolling start.

But unlike the previous three races he left it until the last moment on Sunday, clearly catching some drivers off guard.

Two-time V8 champion Marcos Ambrose and Nick Percat were almost immediately taken out in the chaos that ensued, with James Moffat and Will Davison also suffering damage.

Before the field could settle, Fabian Coulthard spun Holden great Craig Lowndes into the path of Jason Bright on turn two.

“It’s not my fault. At pole you have the right to go when you want, but if they predict you are going to go at the same spot it’s their fault,” Winterbottom said of the rolling start.

“You can’t pre-empt things – that caused the carnage.

“But that’s what that start does. It’s a shambles to be honest.”

Winterbottom was glad rolling starts were only used at Albert Park as he looked to use the confidence gained in Melbourne at the next official round at Tasmania’s Symmons Plains from March 27-29.

“They try and have a spectacle here and it works because cars are crashing and that creates one,” he said.

“Coming away from here undamaged is a huge advantage.”

While Winterbottom said his weekend was “as good as it gets”, he admitted he would not read too much into six-time champion Jamie Whincup’s quiet weekend in Melbourne.

Red Bull Holden’s Whincup did not crack the podium in four races.

“They’ve got sponsors here. I am sure they would not like it when Shane (van Gisbergen) beats them in the same car,” he said.

“But you’d have to ask him why he isn’t winning.”

Pyne accused of holding scientists hostage

The Abbott government is being accused of holding the jobs of 1700 scientists hostage in a last ditch effort to get its university funding reforms through parliament.

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Labor leader Bill Shorten and Independent MP Nick Xenophon have criticised Education Minister Christopher Pyne for linking $150 million in annual science funding to fee deregulation, putting at risk the jobs of hundreds of researchers.

And with a vote on the higher education reforms due in the Senate this week, Mr Pyne warned crossbenchers the consequences of defeat would be a loss of funding for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme.

It is the second time the coalition has tried to get university deregulation through the Senate, with Greens, Labor and the crossbenchers so far blocking the changes.

“There are consequences for not voting for this reform and that’s very important for the crossbenchers to understand,” Mr Pyne told ABC Television.

“The consequences are that potentially 1700 researchers will lose their jobs.”

Mr Shorten said the ultimatum was a new low for the government.

“They are taking hostage 1700 jobs,” he told reporters in Melbourne.

“They are threatening the future of science in Australia.”

Senator Xenophon said the university reforms were reckless and would significantly increase the price of degrees.

“I don’t understand why Christopher Pyne is holding 1700 scientists hostage to this policy,” he told reporters in Adelaide.

Despite still facing stiff opposition in the Senate, Mr Pyne said he was only contemplating victory when the reforms go to a vote on Wednesday.

His job to convince six crossbenchers to support the legislation has potentially been made more complicated with the resignation of Glenn Lazarus from the Palmer United Party.

But Mr Pyne said Senator Lazarus’s decision to quit the PUP might even help the government’s reforms, and presented “opportunities” to convince sole PUP senator Dio Wang to back deregulation.

Senator Wang has previously indicated his support for university deregulation.

“We will fight right through to the vote,” Mr Pyne said.

“I’m contemplating victory on Wednesday, because it’s too important not to win for students and for universities and for Australia.”

Asked if his government would follow through with the threat to scrap the $150 million in science funding, Tony Abbott said he anticipated the university reforms would be passed by the Senate.

“Because it’s good legislation, it’s good for universities, ultimately it’s good for students. It’s good for Australia,” the prime minister told reporters in Sydney.

Waratahs captain demanding improvement

NSW Waratahs captain Dave Dennis is demanding his teammates lift their game as Super Rugby’s reigning champions face a test of character to keep their title defence alive.

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The Waratahs host the table-topping Brumbies next Sunday at Allianz Stadium desperately needing to win to remain in touch with the Australian conference leaders after collapsing to a 26-19 loss to the Highlanders on Saturday.

It was the Waratahs’ first road loss in 10 months and denied the champions six straight away victories for the first time in 20 seasons.

But it was the manner of the defeat that worried Dennis most as the Tahs surrendered a 12-0 advantage and lost the physicality stakes after making a bright start in Dunedin.

Slick set-move tries to Nick Phipps and Matt Carraro had the Waratahs in control before they lost their way following a match-turning sin-binning of prop Sekope Kepu just before the half-hour mark.

Concerned that a worrying pattern of concentration and energy lapses were undermining their campaign, the Waratahs’ straight-shooting skipper said the titleholders mustn’t live in the past if they want to go back to back in 2015.

“Every team we play is going to grow an extra leg,” Dennis said.

“We’ve been expecting that, so we’ve got to be better. We’ve got to respond.

“We play some good footy in patches and then drop off during games and that’s about where we’re at at the moment.

“There are similar signs at training. It’s hard to pinpoint why we’re dropping off in intensity.”

Dennis said nothing less than a full 80-minute performance would be good enough against the Brumbies, who are outright top of the competition after thumping the Queensland Reds 29-0 in a five-try rout at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday night night.

The Brumbies will also be eyeing revenge for their heavy finals loss to the Waratahs last season and have the chance to open a 15-point gap on their conference rivals.

“Obviously any time you play the Brumbies it’s a big game,” Dennis said.

“We’ve got to get back to training, have a good week’s preparation and stay positive.”

After three successive away games, the Waratahs are now looking forward to three matches at home against the Brumbies, Blues and Stormers plus an Easter weekend bye.

“It’ll be great to be back in Sydney,” Dennis said.

“Hopefully we can repay our loyal fans with some good rugby and a few wins.”