Sharapova cranks up the volume to win opener

By Alastair Himmer

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Former world number one Maria Sharapova invited renewed comparisons with fellow Russian Anna Kournikova after a patchy 6-1 6-3 opening victory over Tamarine Tanasugarn at the Australian Open on Monday.

Sharapova produced a Jekyll and Hyde performance in out-slugging her Thai opponent for a first victory in Melbourne since winning the tournament in 2008.

"I wish I could be number one in the world today," said Sharapova, whose career was disrupted by shoulder surgery after her Australian Open triumph.

"But every day is a process. I had a really long time to think about whether I wanted it or not, and I certainly did. Now it's a challenge to get back to where I want to be, trying to win grand slams and get to number one."

Sharapova has since won three grand slam crowns to firmly silence the doubters, but she performed more like Kournikova -- whose serve often let her down -- against Tamarine.

Ten double-faults twanged from the racquet of Sharapova, striking the first fashion statement of the tournament in a lilac dress and orange visor.

Her blazing ground strokes came to the rescue, however, and carried the 14th seed safely through.

"I was definitely a little bit nervous in the first game," said the 23-year-old Sharapova after exorcising the ghosts of her 2010 first round flop.

She did not compete at the event in 2009.

FEROCIOUS RETURNING

"Last year I played first match on center (court) and lost. I really didn't want that to happen again. In the middle of the first set, I started swinging a little bit."

Sharapova, who has failed to hit the heights since shoulder surgery in late 2008, opened the match horribly flat, coughing up two double-faults and dropping the game to love.

However, she cranked up the volume and hit back immediately, some ferocious returning giving her a love break and she continued trying to hit the fur off the ball, taking the first set in 25 minutes.

Sharapova, whose model looks have helped make her the world's highest-paid sportswoman, suddenly lost her way at the start of the second and had to fight back from 3-1 down.

The trademark Sharapova grunting grew louder as she dug deep, going up 5-3 with a scorching forehand and sealing the win with a clinical crosscourt backhand put-away.

Showered and smiling, Sharapova credited new coach Thomas Hogstedt for helping turn her game around.

"I've worked with Thomas since the middle of November," said the Russian, who has taken a break from coach Michael Joyce after six years together.

"I like the work ethic that's he's brought."

Before leaving, Sharapova found time to jokingly admonish a smitten reporter from New Zealand whom she had earlier accused of being a stalker for carrying a cardboard sign saying "I am NOT a stalker."

"I don't know why you're here. That shouldn't have happened," she said with a laugh. "You even have a sign. Oh my goodness, that's wrong!"

(Editing by John O'Brien)