Maria Sharapova generates buzz in win
MELBOURNE, Australia -- You knew Maria Sharapova wasn't going to slip quietly back into women's tennis.
But aside from the trademark grunts that returned in all their full-blown glory to the Rod Laver Arena on Tuesday night, there was the buzz that Sharapova has always been able to generate.
Powering to a 4-0 start and an eventual 6-3, 6-4 victory against a formidable American opponent, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Sharapova looked barely ruffled by the heat that hung over the Australian Open even into the evening matches. And she left the court blowing kisses to a crowd that returned the love to a player who won here in 2008 but lost decisively in last year's semifinals to Li Na.
"I'm happy just to play despite the heat and everything," Sharapova said. "I've been out of the game for a while, so I'm happy just to be back in a Grand Slam atmosphere."
Sharapova missed the US Open with a right shoulder injury that hampered her much of last season, and her return adds that much more drama to a field that isn't ready to concede the title to Serena Williams. If all goes according to plan, Sharapova would meet two-time defending champion Victoria Azarenka in the semifinals.
"I'm sure it's different from a fan's perspective, but from a player's, we're all still grinding it out week to week," Mattek-Sands said of the tour missing the likes of a Sharapova. "I was hurt at the end of last year, but the circus goes on."
On the men's side, top seed and 2009 Australian Open champion Rafael Nadal was also making a comeback of sorts Tuesday after missing the tournament last year with a knee injury. But in the most anticipated match of the night against controversial Australian Bernard Tomic, the fans left disappointed after Tomic retired with a recurring groin injury following a 6-4 first set in Nadal's favor.
Tomic said he felt it during warm-ups.
"I was [like], 'Oh, no.' It's tough playing Rafa with two legs, let alone one," Tomic said. "Nothing I could do. I felt really good the last few weeks the way I was playing, very confident. I felt good on court today. You know, I was serving very good. ...
"I just felt like, if I continue playing, who knows, something worse can happen and I cannot play maybe for a few months. I don't want to do that. I have to protect myself as much as I can."
The crowd, perhaps impatient after being made to wait until the final day-session match was completed -- a four-hour, 18-minute thriller in which 24th-seeded Andreas Seppi defeated Australian and two-time Grand Slam champion Lleyton Hewitt -- never really got involved in the match and was clearly irritated by its premature end, booing Tomic as he left the court.
"It's very tough to go out of a tournament like this when you are playing at home, when you are playing the night session with a full crowd," Nadal said.
"I felt really sorry for Bernard. I was in that situation a few years ago, and I know how tough is to take that decision. But if you feel bad, there is no reason why you have to continue. You put in risk the next tournaments for nothing."
For Nadal, the only risk will be in a tough quarter of the draw that could have him playing talented French showman and 25th-seeded Gael Monfils in the third round, and 2009 US Open champion Juan Martin del Potro in the quarterfinals.
In late-afternoon matches played in the hottest temperatures of the day at 108 degrees, Andy Murray -- the 2013 Wimbledon champ and three-time runner-up here -- got off the court quickly with a 6-1, 6-1, 6-3 victory over Go Soeda. American Sloane Stephens, the No. 13 seed, worked a bit harder in defeating Yaroslava Shvedova 7-6(1), 6-3.
Down 5-1 in the first set, Stephens, who famously had a career breakthrough at the Australian Open last year with her quarterfinal victory over Serena Williams, joked about the atmosphere on Court 6 after a last-minute court change.
"On Court 6, they didn't have, like, any gate people. So anyone can just, like, walk through when they want. So it was interesting," said Stephens, who withdrew from a tuneup tournament in Sydney last week with a sore wrist. "But I got through it well. I handled all the obstacles well, the court change and everything, so that was good."
As for Murray, who is playing in his first major tournament after back surgery, he said he is "desperate" to win in Melbourne.
"I've had a lot of near misses," he said. "I've played some of the best tennis of my career here, but it hasn't been good enough."