Sharapova passes test to provide Open relief

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Maria Sharapova is accustomed to bringing smiles to men's faces, and a mere shrug of a shoulder made Paul McNamee beam in Melbourne yesterday.

With only six days to go before the start of the Australian Open, the years' first Grand Slam tournament, McNamee, the chief executive, is running short of big- name players.

The Spanish teenager Rafael Nadal has joined the ageing maestro Andre Agassi on a growing list of absentees, and the beleaguered McNamee watched anxiously as Sharapova practised in Rod Laver Arena. Happily, the Russian former world No 1's ailing shoulder withstood the test.

"It was a bit of a race against time for Maria," McNamee said. "She wasn't certain to come, but she's here and giving it her best shot."

Sharapova, a women's singles semi-finalist at Melbourne Park last year, did not arrive from the United States until Monday.

McNamee continued to wait for news of another Russian. Marat Safin, last year's men's singles champion, who said last week that he would need "a miracle" to overcome a serious knee injury in time to play.

Nadal, the 19-year-old French Open champion and world No 2, has not played since damaging a foot at the Madrid Masters last October. He ruled himself out with a strained calf.

"It's clear that if I went to Australia I wouldn't be at my best level in tennis terms or physically," he said, adding that he hopes to be fit for the tournament in Marseilles on 13 February.

Lleyton Hewitt, the chief home contender, is another worry for McNamee after admitting he was close to pulling out against Vince Spadea in the first round of the Sydney International on Monday.

"I've obviously got some kind of bug," Hewitt said. "I actually thought it was getting a bit dangerous, out there, to keep playing on. I was probably only a couple of points away from having to walk off court."

Serena and Venus Williams practised privately at Melbourne Park yesterday, while Sharapova, Lindsay Davenport and Tim Henman's practice sessions were open to the cameras.

Serena Williams, the women's singles champion, withdrew from an exhibition tournament in Hong Kong last week, and Venus, her older sister, has been struggled with a back injury.

"They practised,and they were fine," said McNamee. "They're itching to play," he added.

Grand Slam injury list lengthens


Four-times Australian Open men's singles champion is missing with a sprained ankle.


French Open champion and world No 2 is out with a sore foot and calf strain.


2005 Australian Open men's singles champion is doubtful with a knee injury.


Former Wimbledon and US Open champion and former world No 1 is struggling to fight off a virus.