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Deja vu for 'cold' Sharapova in Melbourne

Maria Sharapova of Russia speaks during a news conference at the Brisbane International tennis tournament in Brisbane January 1, 2013. REUTE
Maria Sharapova of Russia speaks during a news conference at the Brisbane International tennis tournament in Brisbane January 1, 2013. REUTE

By Greg Stutchbury

(Reuters) - World number two Maria Sharapova must be feeling like she has been down this road before.

Last year the Russian arrived at the Australian Open without any match practice after struggling to overcome a nagging ankle injury sustained at the 2011 year-ending WTA Championships.

The problems forced her out of the Brisbane International, the only tournament she had been scheduled to play before the season's first grand slam.

Twelve months later, the four-times grand slam winner is again entering Melbourne lacking match practice after pain in her collar bone caused her to skip Brisbane, won by Serena Williams.

Not that Sharapova seemed too concerned.

"It's much more important for me to be healthy and to be ready than to try to go out and play a few matches," the 25-year-old said after her withdrawal in Brisbane.

"I've always built my career around the fact that it's very important for me to go into something like the Australian Open believing and knowing that I'm healthy, that I'm confident.

"I don't exactly need to play five tournaments in order to feel that way."

Despite coming into last year's Australian Open cold, Sharapova made it to the final, although she was blown away by Victoria Azarenka in just 82 minutes.

An error-strewn performance left some observers questioning whether it was the beginning of the end for the Florida-based Russian, who burst onto the scene as a 17-year-old in 2004 by winning the Wimbledon title.

A career-threatening shoulder injury required reconstructive surgery in 2008 and recurrent injuries since we're starting to take their toll as a new generation of young players began to match her power.

BANNER YEAR

Instead, Sharapova silenced her critics and had one of the most successful years of her career.

She won the French Open title to complete a career grand slam, became the first Russian woman to carry her country's flag at an Olympic opening ceremony in London, where she won the silver medal, and made the semi-finals of the U.S. Open.

Her only blip at grand slam events in 2012 was when she was beaten by Germany's Sabine Lisicki in the fourth round at Wimbledon.

She also won titles in Stuttgart and Rome and made the final at the season-ending WTA Championships, Indian Wells, Miami and Beijing.

Her Brisbane pullout meant she was one of the first players to arrive in Melbourne to begin practicing on Rod Laver Arena.

Local media reported that while she appeared to be periodically flexing her shoulder, the intensity in her ground strokes was as powerful as ever.

The question remains whether that practice against hitting partner Vladimir Voltchkov will be enough for her to lift the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup for the second time.

Aside from Williams's dominance in Brisbane, a big concern for Sharapova will be her recent form against the American and Azarenka.

She will probably need to beat at least one of them to clinch the title in Melbourne.

The Russian had a 2-4 record against world number one Azarenka last year, three of those losses coming in finals.

Against Williams, the most dominant player in the women's game, she had an 0-3 record, which included a 6-0 6-1 loss in the Olympic final on the Wimbledon grass courts.

Sharapova will doubtless be anxious to settle a few scores at the year's first major.

(Editing by Alastair Himmer)

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