Maria’s off-Broadway Open build-up
NOT far from her usual digs at Rod Laver Arena, it was Showcourt 3 that saw 2008 champion Maria Sharapova continue her Australian Open preparations on Monday.
The Russian star, who has made the final at the year's opening grand slam three times, will make her return to the grand slam after missing last year's tournament as she served a 15-month drug suspension in the wake of a failed test at the 2016 event.
She worked under the watchful eye of coach Sven Groeneveld, with ground strokes a focus for lengthy periods in a session that ran like clockwork - literally.
Groeneveld donned an Apple watch and another team member was on stopwatch duties as Sharapova, 30, hit continuously in two-minute blocks as her coach encouraged her to "really accelerate" but maintain consistency rather than go for winners.
Her Open lead-in included last week's Shenzhen Open, where she made the semi-finals before a 6-2 3-6 6-3 loss to Katerina Siniakova.
After arriving in Melbourne on the weekend, Sharapova - ranked 47th and rated a $10 chance with bookmakers to claim glory at Melbourne Park - has already made the most of the city's booming food scene, with a meal of dim sum in the CBD one of her first stops.
The women's draw - already without last year's champion Serena Williams - took another hit with two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka forced to withdraw from the tournament.
Officials confirmed that the former top-ranked Belarusian will not compete at Melbourne Park next week, after being awarded a discretionary wildcard in December.
"It's unfortunate that (Azarenka) is unable to travel to Australia this year. The Australian Open is her favourite tournament and she's looking forward to returning to Melbourne next year," tournament director Craig Tiley said.
The 28-year-old's Open chances had been doubt in recent weeks due to her ongoing custody dispute with her former partner over her infant son Leo.
Azarenka has not played since Wimbledon in July because she cannot leave California with her son until the dispute ends.
The final wildcard was awarded to Croatian-Australian Ajla Tomljanovic.