Sharapova fires grand slam warning

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 January, 2008, 12:00am

I'm getting back to my best, says Russian after crushing victory in Hong Kong

Maria Sharapova shook off a year beset by injuries and personal hardship at Victoria Park last night and sounded a few warnings on the way.

The first few flew from her racquet as she dispatched 17-year-old world number 60 Caroline Wozniacki 6-2, 6-2 in the opening match of the JB Group Classic.

And then a few more flew from her lips as she let it be known that she was coming off the 'best off-season of my career', was now free from any aches and pains and was ready to mount a serious challenge at the first grand slam of the year - the Australian Open starting in Melbourne in two weeks.

Sharapova was a beaten finalist at last year's Australian Open - losing to Serena Williams - and once again has used the Hong Kong event for her final tune-up before heading Down Under.

But that was about as good as things got for the Russian last year, injuries to her knee and shoulder restricting her appearances for most of the season and the loss of her coach's mother to cancer making her at times wonder if she could ever take the game seriously again.

'I had to stop because of injuries,' she said. 'It was a tough year tennis-wise and personally. To see someone so close to you suffer makes you think and certainly put a lot of things into perspective for me.

'Every day you are seeing someone close to you fight for their life. At that point hitting a tennis ball didn't seem so important. It has certainly given so much more perspective in my life and career.

'Injuries-wise it was always stop and go. I was trying to do all the things possible to be out on the court but it was like someone had put a stop sign in front of me which is very frustrating for an athlete,' she added.

Sharapova first signalled she was on the mend at the season-ending Tour Championships in Madrid, where she made it to the final before losing to world number one Justine Henin. And last night there were moments of Maria magic too.

Although Wozniacki made her work for every point, by halfway through the second set Sharapova had warmed up the capacity crowd with a few of her trademark fist pumps. Her grunts had got louder too - a sure sign with this woman that everything is all right with the world.

'I have had the opportunity for the first time in a while to do a lot of running around the court without having to worry about being injured,' she said. 'The Australian is one of the toughest grand slams because of the heat, but I am feeling strong. Tonight I was able to make some good shots and serve my way out of trouble, which is great.'

For her part, Wozniacki was left beaten but not entirely bowed by the gulf that still exists between her game and that of a two-time grand slam winner such as Sharapova.

In last night's late match, Russian world number six Anna Chakvetadze out-dueled Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia 6-4, 6-3.

With both players appearing rusty, Chakvetadze's game plan was to run her opponent around while staying fused to the baseline.

And the world's number nine had no answer in the end to a series of scorching ground-strokes as Chakvetadze booked a spot against Sharapova in tomorrow's semi-finals.