Barty exits Italian Open to Sharapova

Ashleigh Barty has lost her past two matches on clay as she prepares for the French Open

Australian No.1 Ashleigh Barty has been knocked out in the first round of the Italian Open by three-time champion Maria Sharapova.

Making her debut in the main draw in Rome, the 16th-seeded Barty produced a battling performance to take the five-time grand slam champion to a deciding set but eventually came off second-best 7-5 3-6 6-2.

Participating in the tournament for the 10th time Sharapova, who has been struggling to find her form after first-round exits in Stuttgart and Indian Wells and a year on from her return to the court after a doping violation ban last April, needed two hours and 32 minutes to eliminate her battling opponent.

The Russian made a confident start with an early break but Sharapova was still prone to mistakes when switching from her backhand to the forehand side.

Her 22-year-old opponent broke serve to pull level at 5-5 in the very first meeting between the two players.

A vicious forehand winner on the line and a Barty net error secured the first set in 50 minutes for Sharapova.

Sharapova looked shaky in the second set as a handful of unforced errors saw Barty break her serve twice as the world No.18 levelled the match with a solid service game to force a deciding set.

Sharapova, ranked No.40, then saved three break points to remain even with Barty at 1-1 in the final set before a remarkable lob that caught the baseline gave her the lift she needed to finally get a vital break.

Sharapova's revival at the crucial moment blew apart Barty's nerves as she racked up a double fault and a set of forced errors when she traded in a rally to concede defeat to the former world No.1.

She now meets Slovakia's Dominika Cibulkova in the next round, who defeated Italy's Francesca Schiavone.

Barty has now dropped her last two three-setters on Europe's red clay.

"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.