Rust no problem for a well-oiled Sharapova
IT'S rare that Maria Sharapova has ever flown under the radar, but that's how it is for the world No.2 going into the Australian Open.
With Serena Williams the hottest of favourites for a sixth Open crown, world No.1 Victoria Azarenka seen as the obvious challenger and local hope Sam Stosur's form worries the big topic, Sharapova goes into her first-round match against fellow Russian Olga Puchkova barely discussed.
A beaten finalist by Azarenka at Rod Laver Arena last year, Sharapova is a past winner, a three-time finalist and has made the last four in Melbourne five times.
Ready to fire … Russia's Maria Sharapova. Photo: Wayne Taylor
But the only lead-up the 25-year-old has entering the tournament is the launch of her personally branded line of lollies, Sugarpova, after a collarbone injury forced her out of the Brisbane International.
Now fully recovered, Sharapova said she would use experience to overcome any fear factor at her lack of match practice.
''I might be a little bit rusty, but I'll work my way through it,'' she said. ''Just because you're rusty, doesn't mean you're not going to play well.
''I'm too experienced to feel that way. It's just experience, maybe giving yourself that extra slack in case you do make a few more errors.''
Sharapova won't have to wait long to test herself - her match against world No.105 Puchkova is first up on centre court on Monday.
And she does have the opportunity to climb back to world No.1, needing to reach at least the semi-finals - though Williams can also grab that mantle from Azarenka with a big performance at Melbourne Park.
Williams, now 31, goes into the tournament not only in great form, but feeling positive.
''I feel really calm and relaxed. I don't feel I'm panicking, or doing anything that's over the top,'' Williams said. ''For me, that's a key.''
While Williams plays her first-round match on Tuesday, sister Venus takes on Kazakhstan's Galina Voskoboeva on Monday.
As Azarenka starts her title defence, she is remembering the winning feeling from last year.
''That feeling that I had was incredible,'' she said. ''Since then, I want to feel it again. It's amazing when you achieve your dream, your goal [and] how much more motivated I was after that.''