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.”

Australian aid begins to arrive in Vanuatu

Australian aid has begun to arrive in cyclone-ravaged Vanuatu after Port Vila airport was reopened.

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The Red Cross has confirmed international aid arrived on Sunday morning and more help will come from Australia and New Zealand as the nation grapples with the aftermath of category five Cyclone Pam.

Australia has committed a “lifesaving” package of $5 million and humanitarian supplies.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop says the commitment follows a request from the Vanuatu government.

“This package will include $5 million that will be provided to Australian NGOs, particularly the Red Cross and to other United Nations partners,” she told reporters in Perth.

“We will also be deploying humanitarian supplies to provide support for up to 5,000 people in the form of water, sanitation and shelter.”

The announcement was welcomed by Oxfam Country Director Colin Collet van Rooyen, who is in Port Vila.

“Obviously we’re going to need more, but we welcome it,” he told AAP.

“We have limited supplies of food in the country.”

Oxfam, World Vision and CARE International are already on the ground in Vanuatu with teams who were there before the cyclone hit.

The official death toll stands at least six in Vanuatu’s capital but is expected to rise, with unconfirmed reports of 44 people killed in just one province.

Mr Collet van Rooyen said more people would die in coming days from injuries, because access to villages and outer islands was limited.

“Some people’s death could be prevented if we can access them now,” he said.

“People with search and rescue expertise are incredible needed at this point.”

The Oxfam spokesman said he still didn’t know whether the main hospital’s power had been restored since the generator went down.

The long-term financial impact on Vanuatu could be severe, with infrastructure and tourism likely to be heavily impacted, he said.

“The people of Vanuatu are going to have to rebuild, but rebuild in a ways that are more sustainable, more category 5 cyclone resistant,” Mr Collet van Rooyen told AAP.

Aid agencies warn it could be days before the full extent of the damage is known – and it will take months to rebuild the tiny island nation.

World Vision said more than 2,000 people had already sought refuge in emergency shelters in the capital Port Vila, but it could take weeks to reach the more remote islands affected.

At this point, no one has heard anything from the outlying islands.

World Vision worker Chloe Morrison says the winds from Cyclone Pam, in excess of 250km/h, turned buildings into debris.

“Whole villages have been blown away. The homes have been absolutely completely flattened, they’re just piles of timber, and sometimes not even that. They just are totally decimated,” she said in a statement.

Request for Widodo phone call stands: PM

Prime Minister Tony Abbott is still waiting for a phone call from the Indonesian president in his attempts to avert the deaths of the two Bali Nine drug smugglers.

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Mr Abbott said he last spoke with President Joko Widodo about a fortnight ago to raise the issue of Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran on death row in Indonesia.

“He might think that the subject has been well and truly discussed, but my request for a phone call stands and it’s up to the Indonesian president to respond,” he told reporters in Sydney on Sunday.

Even so, Mr Abbott said the relationship between Australia and Indonesia is as at least as strong under his government as under the former Labor government.

He was responding to comments by Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek that the relationship has been damaged by the Abbott government’s policy of turning-back of asylum seeking boats.

“It has not been good for it in the past,” she told Sky News.

But Mr Abbott said the fact that the people smuggling trade has all but shut because of the policies of this government is one of the reasons why the relationship is stronger.

“There isn’t that irritant in the relationship that existed for about five years under the former government,” he said.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said the planned execution of the two drug smugglers is unlikely to go ahead until all legal proceedings are completed.

Australia is waiting for the outcome of legal proceedings including an appeal against the final rejection of the clemency plea and judicial commission hearings about allegations of bribery and corruption at Chan and Sukumaran’s original trial.

“I cannot imagine that further plans for the execution of these two Australian citizens would be proceeding while there are legal options still being pursued,” Ms Bishop told reporters in Perth.

Independent senator Nick Xenophon travelled to Indonesia last week with the Grand Mufti of Australia, who pleaded for mercy for the pair.

Back in Adelaide, Senator Xenophon said he hoped the religious leader’s message would spark a rethink in Jakarta.

“I hope there are now going to be Islamic clerics, many of whom I spoke to privately who agree with that position, who can now feel emboldened to speak out in Indonesia for mercy for Chan and Sukumaran,” he told reporters.

Wins for Tomic and Kokkinakis

Bernard Tomic and Thanasi Kokkinakis are one win away from an enticing clash at the Indian Wells Masters after rolling into the third round with impressive wins in the Californian desert.

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Cashing in on his wildcard entry, Kokkinakis upset 23rd seed Guillermo Garcia-Lopez 7-5 5-7 6-3 on Saturday to improve to an impressive 4-1 against top-40 opponents this year.

A day after joining exciting young Croatian Borna Coric as the first 18-year-olds to win a match in Indian Wells since Tomic and American Ryan Harrison in 2011, Kokkinakis backed up to claw his way into the last 16 of a Masters Series event for the first time.

Kokkinakis fired 13 aces and broke the Spaniard’s serve on five of 10 chances.

Australia’s teenage Davis Cup star next plays Juan Monaco after the Argentine surprised US Open champion Marin Cilic, the 10th seed, 6-4 6-4 in his second-round match.

Tomic continued his fine start to 2015 with a 6-3 6-4 victory over Coric, his 18th win of the season setting up a meeting with Spanish eighth seed David Ferrer.

Ferrer scraped past Ivan Dodig 4-6 6-1 7-6 (8-6), while fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco ended James Duckworth’s tournament with a 6-2 7-6 (7-3) victory.

Despite the loss, Duckworth’s effort in making round two is set to propel the Australian into the world’s top 100 for the first time.

World No.1 Novak Djokovic kicked-started his bid for a fourth Indian Wells title by beating Marcos Baghdatis 6-1 6-3.

Gunning for the 50th singles title of his career, which would make him the 12th player in the open era to achieve such a milestone, Djokovic next plays Albert Ramos-Vinolas of Spain.

Andy Murray also moved into the third round on Saturday with a 6-1 6-3 defeat of Vasek Pospisil.

The hard-serving Canadian made it easier for the Scot as a result of his 35 unforced errors.

Murray broke Pospisil three times in the first set, winning the final six games.

They traded breaks to open the second before Murray broke Pospisil at love in the eighth game and then served his own love game to close out the match.

In other action, Kei Nishikori beat American Ryan Harrison 6-4 6-4 on a 91-degree day in the desert.

Nishikori dispatched Harrison in just over an hour despite struggling with his first serve.

The fifth-ranked Japanese player reached the third round at Indian Wells for the first time in eight tries.

Nishikori arrived in the desert on a roll, having reached the quarter-finals or better at each of his four previous tournaments this year.

Harrison fell to 1-24 against top-10 players in his career.

Moore leads Spieth by one at US PGA event

American Ryan Moore has a one-shot lead over Australian Open champion Jordan Spieth after three rounds of the US PGA Tour’s Valspar Championship in Florida.

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Moore birdied four of the last six holes on his way to a four-under-par 67 on Saturday.

Moore opened with 12 pars and shot one of only two bogey-free rounds surrendered in the penultimate round at the Innisbrook resort’s Copperhead course to stand on nine-under 204 after 54 holes in Florida.

American Spieth fired a three-under-par round to sit one shot off the lead at eight under, while compatriot Derek Ernst is third at seven under.

American Sean O’Hair is fourth on six under with Swede Henrik Stenson joining the US duo of Matt Kuchar and Patrick Reed at five under.

Greg Chalmers is the best-placed Australian in a tie for 44th at one-over after a 73.

Moore is seeking his fifth US PGA triumph, the past two coming at the 2013 and 2014 CIMB Classic in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

He also won in 2012 at Las Vegas and took his first PGA title in 2009 at Greensboro, North Carolina.

Moore missed a four-foot birdie putt at the par-five opening hole but saved par from 12 feet at the par-three fourth and eight feet at the par-three eighth.

“I just hit it closer,” Moore said of his late birdie run.

“I missed a lot of greens early, made a few chips and some great par savers. I made some good birdie chances from (13 on) and was able to hole them out.”

Moore sank eight-foot birdie putts at the par-three 13th and par-five 14th holes, rolled in a birdie from 31 feet at 16 and closed with a five-foot birdie putt at 18 to seize sole possession of the lead.

“You just always have to be mindful on this course,” Moore said.

“You have to let it dictate what you do out there and that’s how I’ve tried to play it.”

Spieth seeks his third title in five months, although his only US PGA career title so far came at the 2013 John Deere Classic.

Spieth won the Australian Open last November and followed up by winning the Hero World Challenge charity event hosted by Tiger Woods last December near Orlando.

Spieth opened with a tap-in birdie but took his lone bogey at the third, finding the left rough and a greenside bunker and missing a seven-foot par putt.

He sank a seven-footer for birdie at the ninth and a 10-foot birdie putt at the par-five 11th, then birdied from 11 feet at the par-three 15th.

Spieth would become the youngest US PGA two-time winner since Spaniard Sergio Garcia in 2001.

Aust selectors mull team for CWC quarters

Pat Cummins or Josh Hazlewood?

It’s likely to be the only question national selectors wrestle with this week as they mull the XI for Australia’s World Cup quarter-final at the Adelaide Oval.

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Australia have made at least one change for every match since belting England in their tournament opener at the MCG.

Part of it has been fitness concerns, while form and differing pitches have also been a factor.

The tournament co-hosts look to have largely settled on their first-choice XI, with the exception of one spot.

Left-armers Mitchell Johnson and Mitchell Starc have played every game in the past month.

But the third prong of the bowling attack has been harder to pin down – Cummins, Hazlewood and spinner Xavier Doherty have been given a go.

“It’s the beauty of four of us trying to get into three spots every game,” Cummins said.

“We want to do well but there’s also that added pressure of trying to hold your spot.”

Cummins returned from a side injury against Scotland on Saturday, when Australia wrapped up second spot in pool A with a seven-wicket win.

Doherty could yet keep Cummins and Hazlewood out of the side for Friday’s clash in Adelaide.

However, the Tasmanian tweaker is more likely to be considered for an SCG semi-final should Australia progress.

Adelaide Oval has traditionally been a spin-friendly pitch.

But based on the drop-in decks he has encountered at the venue this season, Cummins predicted the strip would favour pace.

“(It’s) been fast, bouncy both games I’ve played there,” the 21-year-old said.

“It’s been probably close to the quickest wicket I’ve played on this year I reckon.

“So obviously with a few of us trying to bowl quicker, I think it’s going to favour us.”

Starc has been arguably the form bowler of the tournament, while Johnson at his best can be a frightful proposition for any batsman.

Cummins suggested his side’s potent attack was a point of difference compared with other title contenders, especially in the middle overs.

“Batsmen try and accumulate plenty of singles and I think with fast bowlers you can try and rough them up,” the right-armer said.

“Or have a bit more flexibility of trying to be aggressive through those middle overs, so hopefully it’s one thing that sets us apart.”

Cummins’ opening spell of two overs conceded 17 runs against Scotland, but he bounced back in Hobart to finish with three wickets.

Given Cummins’ history of serious injuries, the speedster was thrilled to be on the park again after hurting himself a fortnight ago in Auckland.

“I have done my side two or three years ago and that was a real bad one,” Cummins said.

“This time I could tell it was nowhere near (as bad).

“But I did need that … rest.”

Australia will enjoy a day off on Monday before they return to training.

“It’s getting towards the business end. We just can’t wait to really get into the pressure games,” Cummins said.