When Maria Sharapova served two double faults in dropping her first game to love against Tamarine Tanasugarn here today at the Australian Open it was no surprise that the 23-year-old Russian started thinking about her experience 12 months ago.
A first-round defeat to Maria Kirilenko on the same opening day on the same court last year was one of the biggest shocks of the tournament as Sharapova continued to struggle to recover from her shoulder problems.
Although she went on to serve eight more double-faults, there were times when the No 14 seed struck her ground strokes with something approaching her old authority as she overpowered Tanasugarn 6-1, 6-3 to record her first victory here since her 2008 triumph.
It was eight months after claiming her third Grand Slam title here that Sharapova underwent shoulder surgery. She has not been the same player since. In seven subsequent appearances at Grand Slam events her best run saw her knocked out in the French Open quarter-finals two years ago.
Despite last year’s mishap, Sharapova has a good record here. She made the semi-finals in 2005 and 2006 and the final in 2007, while her victory the following year was arguably the most impressive of her whole career. Sharapova did not drop a set en route to the title, beating Elena Dementieva, Justine Henin, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic along the way.
After the poor start against Tanasugarn in the tournament’s first match on the main show court, Sharapova quickly found her stride. The 2004 Wimbledon champion, hitting the ball with her trademark power, reeled off six games in a row to take the first set in just 25 minutes, only to take her foot off the pedal at the start of the second as Tanasugarn, a 33-year-old veteran from Thailand, took a 3-1 lead. Once again, however, Sharapova recovered her poise to win the next five games and close out victory with a backhand cross-court winner.
“I was definitely a little bit nervous in the first game,” Sharapova said afterwards. “Last year I played first match on centre and lost. I really didn't want that to happen again. In the middle of the first set, I started swinging a little bit.”
Sharapova is working with a new coach, Thomas Hogstedt, although she has not cut all ties with Michael Joyce, who has been working with her for six years. “I've worked with Thomas since the middle of November,” Sharapova said. “I like the work ethic that's he's brought.”
The second serve remains one of Sharapova’s biggest problems. “At certain points I definitely feel like I can go for bigger ones, but on different days the spin feels a little bit different to me,” she said.
“That's something that I've really had to adjust to. Whereas maybe before when I was younger, before the surgery, I'd step up to the line and all the type of different spins, whether I hit a kick or slice, were a lot more natural. I didn't really have to think about jumping up and putting something extra on the ball. Now if I don't, then, with my arm, I don't really feel the spin sometimes. That's something that I really have to concentrate on, definitely more on the second than on the first.”
Sharapova said she would have to remain patient as she continued to attempt to get back to the level that took her to the top of the world rankings. “Listen, I wish I could be No 1 in the world,” she said. “But I think everything is a process. It really is. I've had many challenges in my career before today. A lot of it was trying to win Grand Slams and trying to get to No 1. A lot of it was trying to get back from my injury. Now it's a challenge of trying to get back to where I want to be.”
Asked whether she was finding it frustrating having to take her comeback step by step, Sharapova replied: “Which part of life isn't frustrating? I have many friends that are in college and they go through daily frustrations of having a test the next day and having to stay up till three in the morning and study for it and not know what they're going to be, what their job is going to be when they're done with school.
“Every aspect of life has frustrations, but I think that's what makes it interesting, when you break through and find a way to get back or to get to a place where you want to be and achieve your goals. I think it's really, really worth it at the end ? whether you're a tennis player or anything else in life.”
The current world No 1, Caroline Wozniacki, came through a tricky opening encounter against Argentina’s Gisela Dulko, who is world No 1 in doubles. Wozniacki won 6-3, 6-4 after an hour and 40 minutes. Francesca Schiavone, the French Open champion, dropped the first set to Spain's Arantxa Para Santonja before winning 6-7, 6-2, 6-4.
Sam Querrey became the first seed to go out of the men’s tournament when the American was beaten 5-7, 6-2, 3-6, 6-1, 8-6 by Poland’s Lukasz Kubot. Russia’s Nikolay Davydenko followed him out of the competition, losing 6-3, 4-6, 7-6, 6-4 to Germany’s Florian Mayer, but Roger Federer, the defending champion, eased to a comfortable 6-1, 6-1, 6-3 win over Slovakia’s Lukas Lacko.