MELBOURNE, January 18 – Former champion Maria Sharapova crashed out of the Australian Open on Monday but there was better luck for fellow Russian Dinara Safina who spearheaded the charge into the second round.Sharapova, a former world number one and the 2008 winner, was a shadow of her former self against the hard-working Maria Kirilenko, who made the most of her chances to win 7-6 (7/4), 3-6, 6-4.
It was a disastrous start to the year for the underdone Sharapova, seeded 14, who opted to only play exhibitions in Thailand and Hong Kong as a warm-up to the opening Grand Slam of the year.
Playing with the roof closed on the Rod Laver Arena due to rain, which caused play on outside courts to be suspended, the 22-year-old struggled to find any rhythm against a player ranked 58.
The Russian pin-up was deprived of defending her Australian title last year after failing to recover from shoulder surgery.
The injury kept her out of action until last May and Monday was another example of her struggling to regain the type of form that made her the top player in the world.
In contrast Safina, the number two seed who was thrashed in the final last year by Serena Williams, downed Slovakia’s 47th-ranked Magdalena Rybarikova 6-4, 6-4.
But she too had her work cut out as she battled double faults and unforced errors in an emotional and spasmodic performance.
The 23-year-old, who battled a back problem at the end of last year and was playing in only her seventh match since mid-September, said she was happy just to stay in the tournament.
"It was not an easy first round match, she’s a very good opponent," Safina said.
"I had some good moments and bad moments, but overall I’m happy I went through."
She added that her back was no longer a problem and she was fired up for this season.
"I feel like I’m back and I’m enjoying every moment on the court," she said.
"That was missing a little bit last year. Last year I was pushing myself every time, ‘okay, I have to do it’. But now I do it with a much more desire."
She next faces either Russian qualifier Regina Kulikova or Czech Barbora Zahlavova Strycova.
Other women progressing included 30th seed Kateryna Bondarenko of Ukraine, who eased past Romania’s Raluca Ioana Olaru 6-2, 7-6 (8/6) and China’s Zheng Jie, who beat compatriot Peng Shuai 0-6, 6-1, 6-2.
Serena Williams is the bookmakers’ favourite and she gets her title defence underway on Tuesday against Poland’s Urszula Radwanska.
A key threat to her will be the Belgian pair of Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin, with both in action later Monday.
On the men’s side, Ivan Ljubicic was the first seed through with the 24th-ranked Croat crushing 16-year-old Australian wildcard Jason Kubler, the youngest player in the draw, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2.
Former finalist Fernando Gonzalez of Chile, seeded 11, progressed after a 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1 win over Belgian Olivier Rochus.
World number two and defending champion Rafael Nadal plays later Monday, against Australia’s Peter Luczak in a night match.
On the Spaniard’s side of the draw, Andy Murray is a key threat with the Scot also in action Monday against South Africa’s Kevin Anderson.
World number one Roger Federer opens his tournament on Tuesday against Russia’s Igor Andreev with third seed Novak Djokovic and sixth seed Nicolay Davydenko posing the main threat for him in his top half of the draw.