Sharapova steals the spotlight

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PARIS, May 26 – Rafael Nadal, bidding for an historic fifth successive French Open, and Roger Federer, still seeking a first Roland Garros crown to complete a career Grand Slam, swept into the second round on Monday.MARIA_SHARAPOVABut the two great rivals were overshadowed by the eagerly-awaited Grand Slam return of Maria Sharapova, the world’s highest-paid and most recognisable sportswoman.

The Russian golden girl, ranked at a lowly 102 after a nine-month absence to cure a shoulder injury, overcame Belarussian Anastasia Yakimova 3-6, 6-1, 6-2 and book a last 64 date against compatriot Nadia Petrova, the 11th seed.

Sharapova, a former Wimbledon, US and Australian Open champion, said her return feels like a second career has just get underway.

"Definitely. It’s the first time in my life where I couldn’t practice for such a long period of time," said Sharapova, who warmed up for the French Open by playing singles at the low-key Warsaw event last week.

"I think it was three months where I didn’t touch a racquet. Everything about it was just bizarre. It was like some things were just taken away from your life."

Top seed and world number one Nadal, sporting a bright pink shirt, saw off plucky Brazilian qualifier Marcos Daniel 7-5, 6-4, 6-3 to take his career record here to 29 wins in 29 matches.

The 22-year-old has now gone past the previous best sequence he shared with former six-time champion Bjorn Borg, who had 28 straight victories between 1978 and 1981.

Nadal will next face Russia’s Teimuraz Gabashvili.

"The first match is always difficult. I was a little nervous because this tournament is very special to me, but I feel good," said Nadal, who arrived in Paris having lost his 33-match claycourt winning streak to Federer in Madrid.

He also explained his choice of bright clothing.

"It’s the same reason why I wore white and yellow two weeks ago – because it’s better than dressing the same colour every week," he said.

Federer, who has lost the last three finals here to Nadal, overcame dropping his first service game to see off Spanish journeyman Alberto Martin 6-4, 6-3, 6-2.

The Swiss star, the holder of 13 Grand Slam titles, hit 10 aces and 38 winners in his win over the former French Open junior champion and next faces Argentina’s Jose Acasuso.

"I started a little slowly," said Federer. "He plays very far behind the baseline so I had to make adjustments.

"Then I started to serve well. That allowed me to play more freely and I was able to dominate."

Nadal and Federer were joined in the next round by American sixth seed Andy Roddick who eased past French wildcard Romain Jouan 6-2, 6-4, 6-2.

Roddick, who has never got beyond the third round, admitted he knew nothing of his 302nd-ranked opponent, who only discovered he was playing at the weekend when he received a telephone call while out shopping.

"I couldn’t find any information on him at all," said Roddick of 23-year-old Jouan. "He had plenty of firepower but he’s not the most consistent guy I’ve ever played."

Women’s world number one Dinara Safina opened her campaign with a 6-0, 6-0 mauling of Anne Keothavong as the Russian’s howitzer hitting ruthlessly exposed the Briton’s glaring weaknesses.

Safina, the 2008 runner-up and bidding to win a maiden Grand Slam title, will face compatriot Vitalia Diatchenko, a qualifier, for a place in the last 32.

"I’m not going to go away and slit my wrists," said Keothavong. "You have to find a way to laugh about it. What else is there to do? I’m sure there will be jokes about it, but I can take it."

Safina said it was hard to feel sympathy for her opponent.

"When we shook hands, she said: ‘At least you could have given me one game’," revealed the Russian.

Keothavong’s compatriots Melanie South and Katie O’Brien were also knocked out.

South went down to the highly-regarded 16-year-old Portuguese Michelle Larcher de Brito 0-6, 7-6 (7/5), 7-5 while O’Brien lost 6-1, 6-1 to Olga Govortsova of Belarus.

Also making progress was third seed Venus Williams, the 2002 runner-up, who saw off American compatriot Bethanie Mattek-Sands 6-1, 4-6, 6-2.

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