Tennis: Sharapova fires Grand Slam warning in Australian Open first round

AFP , Monday 18 Jan 2016

Maria Sharapova
Russia's Maria Sharapova celebrates after winning her first round match against Japan's Nao Hibino at the Australian Open tennis tournament at Melbourne Park, Australia, January 18, 2016. (Reuters)

Fifth seed Maria Sharapova crushed Japan's Nao Hibino in a ruthless first round display as she fired a warning to her rivals at the Australian Open on Monday.

The Russian, attempting to win her first title at Melbourne Park since 2008, was in blistering form to take the match 6-1, 6-3 in 73 minutes on Margaret Court Arena.

There were concerns ahead of the clash about her lack of match fitness, after Sharapova pulled out of the Brisbane International with a forearm injury.

But the 28-year-old, last year's beaten finalist, was in fine fettle after hours on the practice courts as she handed a tennis lesson to Hibino, who was making her Grand Slam debut.

"I haven't played many matches in many weeks so it's great to come out here and start my season at the Australian Open," said Sharapova.

"I was quite pleased in the way I was able to play in my opening match.

"I'm feeling really good, which is a positive. I'm just happy to finish off today and be able to get ready for the next one."

Grunting at full volume, the Russian five-time Grand Slam winner was focused and in total control as she raced to a 3-0 lead in just 10 minutes.

It was the first meeting between the pair and Hibino was at a loss on how to handle Sharapova's powerful groundstrokes and pinpoint service game.

The Japanese world number 56 managed to hold serve in the fourth game but that was as good as it got with Sharapova firing 12 winners to take the set in 32 minutes.

The set second started as the first finished with the Russian dominant, immediately breaking to pile all the pressure on Hibino, who has progressively climbed the rankings since her WTA debut in 2012.

The 21-year-old Japanese had few answers to the Russian armoury but gamely clawed back two games, saved three match points and even broke Sharapova as she served for the match. But it was only delaying the inevitable and she eventually succumbed.

The trouble-free performance was a boost for Sharapova whose latter half of 2015 was wrecked by injuries, first to her right leg which forced her to miss the US Open.

She retired from her comeback match at the Wuhan Open in China in September with a left forearm injury, only returning for the WTA Tour finals in Singapore at the end of October.

Despite this she managed two tournament wins (Brisbane and Rome), with a 39-9 win-loss record.

She next plays Aliaksandra Sasnovich of Belarus with a potential last eight clash against her nemesis Serena Williams, who beat her in the final last year and has won every match they have played since 2004.

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