Sharapova back in Melbourne for tilt at second Open crown

A year ago, the former world number one was not even in Melbourne. She withdrew from a tournament she had dominated in 2008 via a statement issued by organizers.

Fast forward 12 months and the tall Russian is firmly ensconced as one of the favorites for the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup after a successful return last May following a layoff that stretched to almost 10 months.

The 22-year-old returned to tournament play at Warsaw, winning her first two matches before losing in the quarter-finals to Ukraine's Alona Bondarenko.

Once the season moved to the North American hardcourts, the powerful groundstrokes were returning and she was again running deep into tournaments.

Problems adapting to a modified service action, however, was not helped when she suffered a shock loss at the hands of American teen-ager Melanie Oudin in the U.S. Open third round when she made 21 double faults.

A loss to China's Peng Shuai in Beijing, however, ended her season in early October -- significantly earlier than previous years though the work had been done.

A 31-9 record in singles rocketed her back up the rankings to 14th by the end of the year, after beginning her comeback at 126th.

GREAT MATCHES

That win was followed by a hard-fought win over China's Zheng Jie and then a demolition of world number four Caroline Wozniacki in another exhibition tournament in Hong Kong.

"I have had three great matches against three different types of players," she was quoted as saying by the BBC website (www.news.bbc.co.uk/sport) after the Hong Kong tournament.

"It's a great field and a good test for the Australian Open. Whether I have a good feeling or not, you never know the future."

Sharapova, however, did indicate in Hong Kong she would be managing her workload more this year and still needed continuous rehabilitation work on her shoulder.

That may be one of the few weaknesses an incredibly strong women's field may be able to exploit when play begins at the year's first grand slam next week.

World number one and champion Serena Williams will again prove a tough task for the Russian, with the American having won their last four encounters -- including twice at Melbourne Park.

Joining the pair will be Serena's sister Venus, French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and the returned Belgian duo Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin.

Coincidentally, it was the same time she entered the year healthy and rested, something the rest of the field may need to take heed of.

(Writing by Greg Stutchbury in Auckland; Editing by John O'Brien)