Australian Open: Sharapova d. Puchkova

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It seems there’s no such word as ‘rusty’ in Maria Sharapova’s vocabulary. Prevented from playing the warm-up tournament in Brisbane by a collarbone injury and playing with her left ankle strapped, the world No. 2 polished off compatriot Olga Puchkova, 6-0, 6-0, in 55 minutes on Rod Laver Arena to kick off her 2013 season.

Like Sharapova, Puchkova is a Russian living in Florida, but the similarities end there. The world No. 107 (and 10th-ranked Russian) was thoroughly outclassed, and any semblance of tension was confined to the first game of the match. Puchkova elected to receive—not a bad decision given Sharapova’s relative lack of practice on serve, due to the collarbone injury—and a double fault followed by a long, tense rally ending with a backhand error made it 30-30, giving the underdog a brief, shining moment of hope.

A margin of millimeters decided the next two points: Sharapova stopped to challenge a Puchkova forehand, then Puchkova challenged a Sharapova ace. Both balls were in by a whisker. Puchkova’s second break point came after two unforced errors from Sharapova, but the second seed slammed an ace down the T, then held.

As they changed ends, Puchkova must have been encouraged to find Sharapova so attackable on her own serve, but the former champ was quick to counter-attack. Instantly aggressive off the ground behind her always fearsome returning, Sharapova displayed no hesitation in breaking Puchkova and shook off any question about her own serve, holding for 3-0 with her fourth ace from the deuce court.

Despite some nice defense, Puchkova found herself relentlessly pushed back behind the baseline and unable to mount any effective resistance. Struggling to avoid a bagel, her own frayed nerves were betrayed when she managed to maneuver Sharapova off the court at 0-5, 0-30, only to go for too much and put a backhand wide. Another backhand error after a long rally gave up the shutout set.

The gulf in class between the two players continued to be reflected in the second set. A double fault from Sharapova and a nice forehand down the line from Puchkova made it deuce in the opening game, but it was the closest Puchkova would come to getting on the scoreboard. The understandably despondent Puchkova faded swiftly, reduced to feeding Sharapova balls throughout the 25-minute second set before pushing a backhand long to put herself out of her misery.

Undeniably, Sharapova will face tougher opponents, but if her form today didn’t boost her confidence, a good omen might: The last time she won a Slam title, in Paris last year, she opened that campaign with a 6-0, 6-0 victory.

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