Maria Sharapova blitzes Nao Hibino in opening round
Maria Sharapova eased to a 6-1 6-3 victory in her first-round match against Nao Hibino at the Australian Open.
The Russian world number five, winner of the tournament in 2008, looked in superb form as she lost just a single game in the opening set against her Japanese opponent.
The world number 56 then trailed 5-1 in the second set only to fight back hard as she held serve and then saved two match points with Sharapova serving for the match - and mishitting a series of shots as she did so.
The Russian overcame that wobble, her firepower too much for Hibino as the five-times Grand Slam winner broke in the very next game to open up her tournament with a 6-1 6-3 victory.
"I was pleased with the way I was able to play," said Sharapova, paying tribute to an opponent playing her first Grand Slam main draw match.
"I knew I would have my hands full with her."
Sharapova was the runner-up at the tournament last year, losing to Serena Williams in the final.
But she barely played between July and October due to a forearm injury, and therefore entered the new season with a question mark over her form and fitness. The fears only grew worse when the injury forced her out of the Brisbane Open earlier in January.
But those doubts were answered on Monday - and while she struggled to close out the match, overall she gave the impression that she is capable of once again going deep into the tournament.
After the match Sharapova was quizzed about the lack of new Russian talent coming through the ranks.
Sharapova, who won her first grand slam title at Wimbledon in 2004 aged 17, was in the vanguard of a successful run of the country's women from the mid-2000s that has dried up in recent years.
Now 28, Sharapova has been the only Russian woman to win a grand slam singles since Svetlana Kuznetsova in 2009.
"Just because you're successful for a certain period of time from a country, doesn't mean there's a younger generation coming up right behind them that's expected and mandatory to do well," she told reporters.
Russian women swept the three Olympic singles medals in Beijing in 2008 and Russia also won four Fed Cup titles in five years from 2004-08 but Sharapova said past success did not point to a conveyor belt of future champions although "ultimately somebody will take your place".
"That's just not the way things work. It takes time, takes experience, takes financial help," she said.
"It takes a lot of the right directions, coaches, infrastructure, everything."
Additional reporting via Reuters