Melbourne: Maria Sharapova said today she was delighted to be back in the old routine after a trying 2017 as she sailed into the second round of the Australian Open.
It was the Russian star's first match a Melbourne for two years, having tested positive for performance-enhancing meldonium in Australia in 2016 and only returning from a 15- month doping ban last April. And she sealed a 6-1, 6-4 victory in style with an ace against Germany's Tatjana Maria in an hour and 18 minutes.
"I felt like I have got a lot of things out of the way physically and emotionally and mentally last year," said Sharapova, who only returned to Grand Slam action at the US Open, where she reached the last 16. "(In 2017) there was a lot of firsts again for me, playing the first tournament, first Grand Slam, and just different feelings and what it would be routinely.
"But it felt pretty routine today, just really happy to be back here." On paper this should have been a close match. Sharapova, who is climbing her way back up the tennis ladder following her ban, is ranked 48th with her German opponent one place higher.
But the gulf in class and experience between Sharapova, who has won 36 singles titles, and the 30-year-old journeywoman yet to register a WTA title was evident from the opening exchanges.
The 2008 Australian Open champion hardly looked back after racing into a 2-0 lead, holding her own serve to love and then breaking the German three times with ease to take the first set 6-1 in 32 minutes.
"Look, I've got shivers," said Sharapova, pointing to her arm when asked on court how much being back in Melbourne meant to her. "I cherish these moments. I love it here," she added. "It's been a couple of years and I wanted it to be really meaningful to me. But we know it's only going to get tougher." - 'Nothing will be handed to me'
The German found her service range at the start of the second and briefly led 3-1 before the unseeded Russian cranked up the decibel meter and broke back with a flurry of forehand winners. Sharapova broke again, closing out the win with a booming ace and a huge smile for the rapturous crowd on Margaret Court Arena.
Sharapova, one of the highest earners in women's sport, she suffered a string of early defeats after her comeback but has been working her way back up the rankings since. She broke through to win the Tianjin Open in October -- her first title since 2015 -- and enjoyed a run to the semi- final in Shenzhen to start the year.
But she was guarded when asked if her new found- confidence could take her to a second Australian Open crown. "Look, I think confidence comes with time and with match play and putting yourself in situations where you're able to take those opportunities," she said. "I know that nothing will be handed to me or anyone. You have to work for every point in a match. It's too far to tell.
"I have expectations because of my previous results in my career But I'm also realistic, and the process of coming back takes time. I keep building and learning." She got back into the world's top 50 just before the year's first Grand Slam and next faces either 14th seed Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia or American Varvara Lepchenko. (Agencies)