Sharapova still struggling before Melbourne

By Greg Stutchbury

AUCKLAND (Reuters) - The characteristic grunts and squeals, so loud they could be heard outside the Auckland Tennis Center and above the noise of traffic entering New Zealand's largest urban motorway system, were there. So were the crowds.

Maria Sharapova, reputedly the world's best-paid sportswoman, underlined her commercial pulling power at the Auckland Classic with her presence helping to effectively sell out the entire tournament -- something that had never happened before.

But the former world number one's decision to shake-up her normal Australian Open preparations by playing in New Zealand left few who saw her in any doubt.

Three years ago, the tall Russian romped through the Australian Open without dropping a set and was seemingly on her way back to the top of the world.

Less than seven months later she was recovering from surgery on her right shoulder. She did not return for nine months, having dropped outside the top 10 for the first time in more than four years.

RUSTY PERFORMANCES

While she previously played exhibition tournaments in Asia as she fine-tuned her Australian Open preparations, the 23-year-old instead chose to use the Auckland tournament to shake out the rust from not having played since early October.

"This is why I'm here, to work myself up and play as many matches as I can against different types of opponents and get better," she told reporters in Auckland.

"I have been out of competition for a couple of months and that's why I'm here for this tournament, I really want to play matches, which is what I'm lacking at the moment."

As it turned out, she was tested each and every time she took to the newly laid blue courts in central Auckland.

While she managed to beat Italy's 91st ranked Alberta Brianti and the Czech Republic's Renata Voracova (ranked 81st) in the first two rounds, it was apparent she was struggling against players that, prior to her surgery, she would have dispatched with minimal fuss.

Naturally aggressive with powerful groundstrokes she often sprayed her shots wide and long, struggled with her timing and it was apparent her serve was lacking in accuracy and power.

There also appeared to be problems with her second serve as she attempted to take the pace off and put more spin on the ball.

On several occasions she failed to fully extend her arm, instead hitting the ball from the side and lower down instead of going over the top, though she later put that down to a poor ball toss in windy conditions.

Sharapova admitted she had been "sloppy" during her two victories and after her second-round match against Voracova felt it was one of those matches "you just have to get through".

Her Auckland tournament ended the next day when she faced eventual winner Greta Arn, who simply waited for Sharapova's errors.

Despite the absence of Australian Open champion Serena Williams and Justine Henin still coming back to fitness, her short stay in New Zealand may suggest she may still have to wait a little longer than January 29 to achieve that goal.

(Editing by Alastair Himmer)