Maria Sharapova crashes out of Australian Open

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It was hard not to wonder what Nike made of Maria Sharapova’s first-round exit at the Australian Open here today. Just days after it was revealed that she had agreed a $70m eight-year extension to her sponsorship agreement with the sportswear company, the former world No 1 was beaten 7-6, 3-6, 6-4 by a fellow Russian, Maria Kirilenko. It was the first time Sharapova had lost in the first round of a Grand Slam tournament since her first two appearances in 2003.

Sharapova may still be the world’s highest-earning sportswoman but her performances over the last two years have hardly merited the rewards her beauty and personality have brought.

Since returning after a 10-month break following shoulder surgery last spring, the 2004 Wimbledon champion has looked well short of the levels she reached in winning her three Grand Slam titles. Although she insists her shoulder is now “a lot stronger”, she has had to remodel her service action and does not strike the ball with the consistency that made her such a danger from the baseline.

While the 22-year-old described her defeat as “just a bad day” there could be no disguising the fact that this was a woeful performance by her past standards. Sharapova hit 11 double faults, made 77 unforced errors and failed to convert 11 of her 16 break points. If there were occasional reminders of her fluent hitting from the back of the court, a constant flow of errors had the bigger influence on the outcome of the match.

Sharapova had lost only three of her previous 26 matches here and this was her first defeat at the tournament since she lost to Serena Williams in the final three years ago. She won the title in 2008 – her last victory at a Grand Slam tournament - without dropping a set, but was missing last year with her shoulder injury.

In the two years since that last Melbourne triumph her Grand Slam results have been poor, her best effort coming with a run to the quarter-finals at last year’s French Open. The world No 14 has since made early exits at Wimbledon and the US Open to Gisela Dulko and Melanie Oudin respectively.

This was Sharapova’s first tournament appearance for three months. She last played competitively in Beijing in October, though she played exhibition matches at the start of this year and is used to coming to Melbourne without any competitive play under her belt.

If 22-year-old Kirilenko drew comparisons with Sharapova when she first appeared on the circuit the talk was as much about her looks as her tennis. Four years ago the Russian beauty became the face of a range of tennis clothes designed by Stella McCartney, but her progress on the court has rarely matched her earning potential off it.

At the end of her breakthrough year in 2005 Kirilenko was No 25 in the world rankings. She reached a career-high No 18 in 2008, when she won three tournaments, but has slipped subsequently and is currently No 58. In her 24 previous Grand Slam tournaments before arriving in Melbourne her best effort was a run to the fourth round here two years ago.

Today’s match, which was played under a closed roof because of rain, lasted three hours and 22 minutes. Mistakes were plentiful as both players regularly struggled to convert winning positions. Sharapova appeared to have the first set in control when she took a 4-2 lead, but Kirilenko held on and won the tie-break 7-4.

The crisis seemed to be over when Sharapova levelled the match by taking the second set, but Kirilenko, hitting the ball more consistently, took control of the decider. Sharapova rallied from 5-2 down but dropped her serve at 4-5 to hand Kirilenko victory.

“I had my chances and just didn't execute,” Sharapova said. “When she was up and then I'd get back in the game I just didn't take advantage and I’d let her control the situation again.”

Sharapova said she had not been unhappy with her serve. “I thought I served pretty big,” she said. “I don't think that was the reason I lost the match today. I served big when I had to. I served big second serves. If I’m going to serve at that pace and do it for three hours and make those types of mistakes, then I'm OK with it. I’m OK with making mistakes when I'm going after it, trying to control the situation instead of being passive.”

She added: “It’s a bad day and you have to get on with your life. There are many worse situations in life. There are people that don't even know what a tennis match is in the world. It was just a bad day. A bad day's not going to stop me from doing what I love. I'm still going to go back on the court and work hard and perform. I'll be back here on a Saturday of the second week, so you'll watch.”

It is not often that a Briton lasts longer in a tournament than Sharapova but Elena Baltacha ensured just that by beating France’s Pauline Parmentier 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 after a hard-fought match that lasted two hours and 25 minutes. The British No 1 now plays the No 30 seed, Kateryna Bondarenko, of Ukraine, who beat Romania’s Raluca Olaru 6-2, 7-6.

Baltacha converted her only break point of the opening set but let the erratic Parmentier back into the match. The 26-year-old Briton was starting to suffer from cramp when rain came to her rescue as the players came off court with the score at 3-3 in the decider. Baltacha looked the better player when they returned and wrapped up victory when Parmentier mishit a backhand on her opponent’s second match point.