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Tennis

Maria Sharapova effect sells out Auckland tournament

By Greg Stutchbury

AUCKLAND (Reuters) - Maria Sharapova underlined her pulling power on Monday with Auckland Classic organizers confirming they had sold out all of the day sessions for the entire tournament just minutes before she stepped on court for her first round match.

A limited number of tickets for the three night sessions were left available, though all of Sharapova's matches will be played during the day and organizers said it was the first time the tournament, with a total prize pool of just $220,000, had been effectively sold out by the first day.

Sharapova, making her first appearance in New Zealand, received an enormous cheer from the 3,200 fans packed around the revamped center court, before the former world number one overcame a nervous start to beat Alberta Brianti 6-2 6-3.

The 23-year-old Russian, who will now meet Renata Voracova of the Czech Republic in the second round, said she had been pleased at the Auckland public's reaction to the tournament.

"I was surprised yesterday when I came to practice even all the people with the qualifying matches," she told reporters after her victory over the Italian.

"From a player's perspective that's really exciting ... it's my first time here and I didn't know what to expect, but it has been really great."

The 25-year-old Russian, who had what she described as a year to forget in 2010 and finished outside the top-20 for the first time since 2004 and will meet China's Peng Shuai in the next round, also praised the crowd for their support.

"I have played many courts and crowds, but I tell you this is a lot of people for the tournament, even for the qualifiers, there were lots of people," Kuznetsova said.

"I was surprised at how many people came here, but the people obviously love tennis and love to watch. It's a pleasure for all of the players to come and play in front of the crowd."

(Editing by John O'Brien)