Tennis: Kirilenko delivers knock-out blow to Sharapova and her lavish sponsors
IF Maria Sharapova was the richer, the taller and the louder of the two Russian Marias in the Australian Open's Rod Laver Arena yesterday, Kirilenko was the blonder, the cuter and the sharper.
On the first afternoon of the grand slam year, and probably even before the cheeseboard had been passed around in the corporate hospitality tents, Sharapova was out of the tournament. The 2008 champion lost in the first round of a slam for the first time since 2003, when she was 16 and before she was famous.
For Nike, and for the Australian Open's sponsors, the wrong Russian blonde called Maria made the second round here. In the days leading up to this slam, Sharapova signed the most lucrative endorsement contract by a sportswoman in history, with an eight-year extension to her arrangement with Nike that is believed to be worth up to €49m.
Yet in the first match of the tournament in the main stadium, which had its roof closed because of rain, she lost 7-6, 3-6, 6-4, and about the only consolation for the former world No 1 was that she was out on court for almost three and a half hours, plenty of airtime for the new dress she was wearing from Nike's Maria Sharapova collection.
Few would have imagined a British girl would go further into the draw than Sharapova, but Elena Baltacha came through her match against Pauline Parmentier on an outside court.
Only twice before had Sharapova lost in the first round of a grand slam, at the Australian and French Opens in 2003. Back then, Sharapova had come through qualifying.
This time things were very different. Sharapova was appearing in Melbourne for the first time since she won the Daphne Akhurst Trophy a couple of years ago, as she missed last year's event while recuperating from an operation to fix the weakness in her shoulder.
During the build-up to this first-round meeting, there was considerably more discussion about Sharapova's money, tennis dress and match-day earrings than about Kirilenko's game. As an old friend from the junior circuit, Kirilenko probably knows Sharapova's game better than anyone else in the draw.
After achieving the most important victory of her tennis life, Kirilenko will be urging her boyfriend, Igor Andreev, on against Roger Federer in the first round of the men's tournament, a match due to be played during today's afternoon session.
With all the attention on the two Marias, the two 'unretired' Belgians were able to go quietly about their business. Justine Henin beat compatriot Kirsten Flipkens 6-4, 6-3 and will next play Elena Dementieva, Russia's world No 5. Belgium's other former world No 1, Kim Clijsters, returned to Melbourne with a 6-0, 6-4 victory over Valerie Tetreault, a Canadian qualifier.
In the men's draw, reigning champion Rafael Nadal overcame a slow start to get the defence of his Australian Open crown off to a winning start against Peter Luczak in Melbourne yesterday.
The second seed looked tentative early on but slowly wore down the 30-year-old Australian 7-6 (7/0) 6-1 6-4.
Cheered on by his home crowd, Luczak served for the opening set at 5-3, but Nadal broke to set up a tie-break he did not lose a point in.
That sucked the life out of the Australian's challenge as Nadal then found his groove from the baseline.
The Spaniard made 10 unforced errors in the first set but thereafter he made just six more to progress in two hours and 34 minutes.
"You know always that you will be more nervous in the first round. First rounds are always difficult to play very well," Nadal said. "So I thought it was going to be a tough match. The first set was tough. Later it was easier.
"Winning in three sets is good news. I am happy to be in the second round."
It was a good day for the top players as fifth seed Andy Murray and American Andy Roddick both won in straight sets, while reigning US Open champion Juan Martin del Potro needed four to overcome Michael Russell 6-4 6-4 3-6 6-2.
- Heavy rain forced officials to reschedule a number of first-round matches for today, including Louk Sorensen's first-round clash with Yen-Hsun Lu of Chinese-Taipei. (© Daily Telegraph, London)