Kerber sets up Sharapova clash of the champions

Germany's Angelique Kerber hits a return against Croatia's Donna Vekic during their women's singles second round match on day four of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 18, 2018. AFP

MELBOURNE, Australia — Angelique Kerber set up a mouth-watering clash between the only two former Australian Open champions left in the draw when she breezed into the third round on Thursday.

The German 21st seed, champion here two years ago, will face 2008 winner Maria Sharapova in Saturday’s glamour clash after beating Croat Donna Vekic 6-4, 6-1 in an hour and 10 minutes.

Sharapova was equally impressive in beating 14th seed Anastasija Sevastova 6-1, 7-6 (7/4) on Rod Laver Arena.

Kerber had a standout 2016 when she won in Australia, beating Serena Williams in the final, to become the first German since Steffi Graf in 1999 to claim a Grand Slam.

She backed it up by being crowned US Open champion and began 2017 as world number one, before her form deserted her and she slumped to 21st by the end of the season.

But a series of wins at the Hopman Cup this month, coupled with ending a 27-tournament title drought by winning the Sydney International — her first since the US Open — has restored her confidence.