Maria Sharapova practices at Melbourne Park as she gets ready for Australian Open return

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Maria Sharapova is getting ready to make her first appearance at the Australian Open since she failed a drugs test at the 2016 tournament that led to her 15-month suspension.

The Russian is climbing back up the rankings following her ban, with her semi-final run in Shenzhen last week taking her up to No. 47 in the world.

Sharapova, a champion in Melbourne in 2008, will be unseeded at the Australian Open and is a dangerous floater in the draw.

At last year’s US Open, which was her first Grand Slam back from suspension, Sharapova drew Simona Halep in the opening round and defeated the second-seeded Romanian in three close sets.


In the absence of defending champion Serena Williams, Sharapova has been chosen to join Roger Federer at the Australian Open draw on Thursday (19:00 local time, noon Dubai time). The draw will be streamed live on www.ausopen.com.









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Rafael Nadal assures he'll be ready for Australian Open despite loss to Richard Gasquet in Kooyong exhibition

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World number one Rafael Nadal lost his first match of the year 6-4, 7-5 to Richard Gasquet at the Kooyong Classic on Tuesday, but said he was happy after his troublesome knee held up “fine”.

Nadal’s knee injury hampered the end of his 2017 season and forced him to skip last week’s Brisbane International, but he was able to give it a workout at the non-tour event in Melbourne.

Though he lost in straight sets, the Spaniard said he would keep working hard until the start of the Australian Open at Melbourne Park on Monday.

“I”m very happy to be back in Australia,” he said. “I had a heavy year in 2017 and I started my preparation later than usual.

“But I’ve arrived in plenty of time. It’s great to get the feeling once again of playing a match. This was a good test for me after some good training, that’s the most important thing.”

The 16-time Grand Slam winner was far from his best in the exhibition encounter against a player he has beaten 15-0 on the ATP Tour in a rivalry dating back to junior days.

Nadal, 31, heads the entry list for the Australian Open and said he will be ready to front up for the first round.

“The knee is fine,” he said in answer to the inevitable question.

“I’m here. If I was not feeling good I would not be here, so that’s good news. I’ll train hard over the next few days for the Australian Open, I will be ready.”

Nadal is not playing any more matches at Kooyong, but he is also scheduled to turn out for a Tie Break Tens tournament at Melbourne Park on Wednesday evening.

Gasquet, who missed Kooyong last year through illness and injury, was happy to get even an informal win over the Spaniard.

“It’s always a pleasure to play Rafa — I hope to beat him one day on the ATP before retiring. He’s a friend of mine and it’s great to play him,” he said.

“I’m happy with how I’m playing after a test against Rafa, who along with Federer is the best in history.”

Gasquet took the opening set, relying on a single break for 5-4 before serving it out against an opponent still trying to shake off the rust of inactivity.

The Frenchman found himself in more of a battle in the second set despite going up a double break for 3-0.

The deficit barely bothered Nadal, who showed some of his classic form in closing the gap to 3-3. Gasquet forced Nadal to save break points throughout as the pair stayed level-pegging.

But the Frenchman finally broke for 6-5 and claimed victory with a smash winner on his first match point a game later.

Separately, Spain’s Pablo Carreno Busta defeated Belgian world number seven David Goffin 1-6, 7-6 (4), 6-3.

In the women’s competition, Germany’s Andrea Petkovic rallied to defeat Australian teenager Destanee Aiava 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 in windy conditions.

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Can Nick Kyrgios go all the way at the Australian Open?

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Alexander Zverev posted a video on his Instagram Story on Monday asking Nick Kyrgios: “How does it feel to be the best player in Brisbane, and maybe in the world right now?”

Kyrgios brushed off the flattery with a laugh and said it was “incorrect”.

“Are you going for world No. 1 this year?” Zverev fired back.

“No, I’m happy where I am, I’m happy with my life,” said Kyrgios.

He has every reason to be happy right now. Kyrgios fought through four tough matches to win the Brisbane title on Sunday. Three of those clashes saw Kyrgios battle back from a set down. He also beat world No. 3 Grigor Dimitrov for the first time.

The 22-year-old Aussie did all that while dealing with a knee injury he picked up ahead of the tournament.

We’ve seen Kyrgios give up during matches when he’s struggling physically on several occasions, but not this time.

This time he stayed focused and found a second gear when he needed it. There was an evident fire motivating him all week and it earned him a fourth career title and first on home soil. He’s also moved up to No. 17 in the world – just four spots off his career-high ranking.

Is this a sign that Kyrgios has perhaps turned a corner and has come to terms with his love-hate relationship with tennis?

It’s too early in the season to tell.

Kyrgios’ talent is undeniable and the fact that he can beat anyone on a good day is not news to anyone who has seen him play.

But it’s easy to find motivation in the first week of a season while playing a tournament at home. It’s tougher when you’re deep into the year, exhausted, homesick and mentally spent and you’re trying to win a match thousands of miles away from home.

Still the early forecast for Kyrgios is a very encouraging one. And it’s prompting many to put him among the list of contenders for the Australian Open crown this month.

Can Kyrgios really win 11 matches in a row in a four-week period, picking up two titles along the way including a maiden Grand Slam? It’s a big ask!

I remember in 2014 when a 19-year-old Kyrgios won 12 matches in a row, winning the Nottingham Challenger, as a qualifier, before storming to the Wimbledon quarter-finals, knocking out world No. 1 Rafael Nadal along the way.

Kyrgios joked about how care-free he was as a young player. He was talking about Aussie teenager Alex de Minaur, who made the Brisbane semis last week.

“He’s an unbelievable talent. He’s a great kid, too…. I remember when I was a young chap just cleaning people up,” said Kyrgios.

Is it possible for him to tap into that youthfulness once again? He is only 22 after all.

It’s the first time he heads to the Australian Open after winning a title, and he does appear to be in a positive head space compared to the past.

If he keeps the dodgy knee in check, Kyrgios can do some serious damage in an Australian Open field that is missing big names like Andy Murray and Kei Nishikori, and features several top guys with injury question marks surrounding them.

If he can call onto that young Kyrgios who was “cleaning up people” and brings the kind of game he produced in Brisbane, he has a legitimate chance in Melbourne.

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