Former champion Maria Sharapova crushed Japan’s Nao Hibino in a ruthless first-round display as she fired a warning to her rivals at the Australian Open on Monday.
The fifth-seeded Russian, attempting to win her first title at Melbourne Park since 2008, was in blistering form to take the match 6-1, 6-3 in 73 minutes on Margaret Court Arena.
There were concerns ahead of the clash about her lack of match fitness, after Sharapova pulled out of the Brisbane International with a forearm injury.
But the 28-year-old, last year’s beaten finalist, was in fine form after hours on the practice courts as she handed a tennis lesson to Hibino, who was making her Grand Slam debut.
“It was just nice to get on court and face the opportunity of playing a first match. No matter how much you train, it’s always different when you walk out onto the court,” she said.
“It’s definitely a relief to get that first one out of the way.”
Despite her vast experience, Sharapova admitted to some nerves going into the match -- her first of the season.
“There’s always a little bit of nerves, sometimes more, sometimes less, going into any Grand Slam, but especially when it’s your first tournament of the season,” she said.
“I try not to focus so much on the opponent or the atmosphere and just really focus on myself and try to bring the positives of a good training week, just try to execute that, keep it simple.”
Grunting at full volume, the Russian five-time Grand Slam winner was in total control as she raced to a 3-0 lead in just 10 minutes.
It was the first meeting between the pair and Hibino was at a loss on how to handle Sharapova’s powerful groundstrokes and pinpoint service game.
The Japanese world number 56 managed to hold serve in the fourth game but that was as good as it got with Sharapova firing 12 winners to take the set in 32 minutes.
The second set started as the first finished with the Russian dominant, immediately breaking to pile all the pressure on Hibino, who has progressively climbed the rankings since her WTA debut in 2012.
The 21-year-old Japanese had few answers to the Russian armoury but gamely clawed back two games, saved three match points and even broke Sharapova as she served for the match. But it was only delaying the inevitable and she eventually succumbed.
Sharapova had some encouraging words for her opponent.
“For a first Grand Slam performance, I thought she was there till the end. That’s impressive,” she said. “I’m sure she’ll have a great future ahead of her.”
The trouble-free performance was a boost for Sharapova whose latter half of 2015 was wrecked by injuries, first to her right leg which forced her to miss the US Open.
She retired from her comeback match at the Wuhan Open in China in September with a left forearm injury, only returning for the WTA Tour finals in Singapore at the end of October.
Despite this she managed two tournament wins (Brisbane and Rome), with a 39-9 win-loss record for the season.
She next plays Aliaksandra Sasnovich of Belarus with a potential last-eight clash against her nemesis Serena Williams, who beat her in the final last year and has won every match they have played since 2004.