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Sharapova faces tough start to title defence

The Brisbane International draw sees Maria Sharapova face a tricky test in the first round, while second seed Simona Halep could square off against former champion Victoria Azarenka in round two.
1 January 2016, by AAP and Nick McCarvel

Drawcard Maria Sharapova has welcomed a first round all-Russian clash against Ekaterina Makarova to begin the defence of her Brisbane International title.

Third seed Sharapova has been pitted against world No.23 Makarova at Friday’s draw, in a rematch from last year’s Australian Open semifinal.

Five-time grand slam winner Sharapova holds a 6-0 record against her compatriot. The 28-year-old said it would be a challenging way to begin her Australian summer campaign.

“This was a grand slam semifinal last year in Australia,” Sharapova said. “For a first match, it’s a pretty high quality match against a pretty tough opponent.”

Three years since Simona Halep lost a first round match against Kim Clijsters at the Brisbane International, the Romanian returns as the world No.2.

Now one of the most consistent forces on tour, Halep has another blockbuster opponent in the wings – former Brisbane champion and two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka.

The Belarusian is unseeded here in 2016 due to a steady comeback from injuries in 2014 and will meet a qualifier first up.

“It’s a tough draw,” Halep told reporters Friday after helping out at the official draw ceremony. “Every match is going to be difficult. In the second round it’s going to be tough if Azarenka wins (her first match).

“I have just to prepare myself to start the tournament and just to enjoy it.”

Azarenka was champion here in 2009, her first WTA Tour title. She has gone on to be top the rankings and as a Grand Slam champion, but is working herself back into form after a costly few months out a year and a half ago. She is currently ranked No.22 in the world.

US Open finalist Roberta Vinci will take on former world No.1 Jelena Jankovic, while rising star Belinda Bencic is up against Sara Errani.

Halep, Sharapova and Bencic, the 18-year-old Swiss player who many tip as the next “it” player, are joined by 2014 Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova, Jankovic, Vinci, Makarova, Andrea Petkovic and 2012 French Open finalist Errani as names to watch in the top half of the draw.

Angelique Kerber is another seed with a tricky task, squaring off against Italian Camila Giorgi.

It was a mixed draw for the Aussies, with Sam Stosur to take on a qualifier, while Ajla Tomljanovic will face a difficult opener against world No.13 Carla Suarez Navarro.

Sharapova, the defending champion here, has a tough road just to make the final should she hop the Makarova hurdle. She has potential clashes with former top-10 resident Petkovic, rising star Bencic and top seed Halep.

The bottom half is anchored by 2015 Wimbledon runner-up Garbine Muguruza, the Spanish world No.3 set to face countrywoman (and former doubles partner) Suarez Navarro in the quarterfinals should their seeds hold.

Kerber and Timea Bacsinszky are seeds No.4 and 5, respectively, on the bottom half of the draw, which features a slew of dangerous lurkers, including Giorgi and Frenchwomen Kristina Mladenovic and Alize Cornet.

Thirteen of the top 25 women in the world play this week in Brisbane, including former world No.1s Sharapova, Azarenka and Jankovic. All three of those players, as well as Halep, Cibulkova, Errani, Muguruza and Stosur have made appearances in Grand Slam finals.

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