Sharapova sets up Davenport clash

Defending champion Serena Williams and top seed Justin Henin survived gritty encounters on the first day of the Australian Open on Monday, while Maria Sharapova set up a tough clash with Lindsay Davenport.

Third seed Jelena Jankovic almost became the women’s draw’s first high-profile casualty but her prayers were answered as she saved three match points to overcome Austrian Tamira Paszek 2-6, 6-2, 12-10.

Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo also showed glimpses of the form that won her the 2006 championship, with a barnstorming comeback sure to make her rivals sit up and take notice.

Williams admitted to an uncharacteristic bout of nerves as she returned to the scene of last year’s stunning title win over Sharapova, taking her time in disposing of unseeded Australian Jarmila Gajdosova 6-3, 6-3.

But the 26-year-old remained confident she would shake off the rust as the tournament progressed, her self-belief bolstered by last year’s victory, when she was returning from career-threatening injury and ranked 81 in the world.

“I think everyone could probably tell I was a little scratchy. But, you know, it’s the first round. Just moving forward,” the three-time Australian champion said.

Henin also failed to dominate her opening clash, content to grind out a 6-2, 6-2 victory over Japan’s Aiko Nakamura that extended her unbeaten run to 29 matches.

“The first round is not my favourite one, so I’m glad it’s behind me now,” she said, before attempting to douse expectations she will walk away with this year’s title after record-breaking form in 2007.

“A Grand Slam, it’s tough and it’s long.
You need to be consistent, at your best all the time, so that’s not very easy,” said the Belgian, who won the French and US Opens last year.

Sharapova knows how cruel Grand Slams can be after last year but set aside memories of that defeat to down Croatia’s Jelena Kostanic Tosic 6-4, 6-3.

The glamorous Russian now faces the toughest second-round match of all the women’s seeds, coming up against another two-time Grand Slam champion in Lindsay Davenport.

The 31-year-old American has shown outstanding form since returning in September after having a baby but Sharapova was philosophical about meeting such a powerful player so early in the season-opening Grand Slam.

“If I can’t beat them in the second round, I can’t beat them at all,” she said.

Jankovic’s dream of a Grand Slam breakthrough in Melbourne Park almost withered under an onslaught from 17-year-old Paszek and the Serb needed some divine inspiration to win a marathon match of three hours and nine minutes.

“I was praying actually, I have to be honest. I was praying, ‘Please, God, help me get out of the situation’,” she said.

“I was just trying to stay positive somehow and I found a way to win.”

Jankovic’s comeback was almost overshadowed by Mauresmo’s rally after losing her first set to Tatiana Poutchek of Belarus.

Facing the ignominy of a first-round exit, the 2006 champion roared back to claim 12 straight games and claim the match 6-7 (6/8), 6-0, 6-0.

Mauresmo will hope the win can spark a career turnaround after a slide from three to 18 in the rankings last year.—AFP

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