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Stars seeking strong starts


After pulling out of the Brisbane International with injuries in recent seasons, Maria Sharapova is aiming to use the season-opening tournament this time as a springboard for her comeback and to see how her new support crew works in competition.

Sharapova has only played one match since an early exit at Wimbledon due to a right shoulder injury and has spent months working with her new coach Sven Groeneveld. She arrived in Australia to prepare for the first major of the season with her boyfriend and fellow professional Grigor Dimitrov, who returns after losing the final here to Andy Murray last season.

Serena Williams won the last Brisbane title and is back to defend it, hoping she hasn’t lost any of the momentum from a stunning 2013 season when she won 11 titles including the French and U.S. Opens, had 78 wins from 82 matches — including a 34-match winning streak — and collected more than $12 million in prize money.

Her brief offseason was not exactly business as usual — although it was commercial.

She trained in Florida with her father, Richard, so she could be close to home for the relaunch of one of her companies and to hire a CEO for it.

“I was interviewing so many people. Corporate Serena was taking over,” she told a news conference Sunday. “I’m happy to be here right now.”

Corporate Serena conducted at least 10 interviews, and still has at least one more to do. She expects it to be a tough interview, like they all are.

“I definitely am not easy . . . I’m a tough interviewer. For me, it’s all about business and removing a lot of emotion,” she said. “I just want to get to the point.”

And that brings her back to tennis, where she can turn the corporate email account off for a while and concentrate on what she does best.

“I took a couple weeks off, but I was already itching to get back on the court,” she said. “I didn’t want to lose any rhythm or anything. Didn’t want to lose momentum.”

No. 3-seeded Sharapova is in Williams’ half of the draw, meaning they could meet in the semifinals.

The Brisbane tournament will be Sharapova’s only warmup for the Australian Open, which starts Jan. 13, so she needs to find her rhythm quickly. She said she’d been practicing hard, but also concentrating on relaxing when she’s off the court. Traveling with Dimitrov has helped, she said, despite or because of their major common interest.

“Of course we share a lot of the same things just because we have an elephant in the room that’s called tennis,” Sharapova said Sunday. “But there are so many other things to life that are besides tennis, and there are a lot more things to discuss than forehands and backhands and strings and rackets, which we share similar ideas and things of.”

Sharapova split with coach Thomas Hogstedt after her Wimbledon loss, and said she wasn’t in the right frame of mind to work with Jimmy Connors long term — that partnership lasted one match.

“You have to realize that the decisions you make, you have to make them selfishly in this business to be better, to know what’s right for you,” she said. “From the first time we met I really liked what (Groeneveld) had to say. He’s a team player. He works with everyone on my team, something I was missing for a little bit of time.”

In first-round results at Brisbane: Wimbledon finalist Sabine Lisicki had a 6-3, 6-4 win over Magdalena Rybarikova of Slovakia; Andrea Petkovic of Germany beat American Bethanie Mattek-Sands 6-4, 7-5; Japanese veteran Kimiko Date-Krumm won 6-3, 7-5 over Australia’s Olivia Rogowska; and Swiss player Stefanie Vogele beat American Madison Keys 6-4, 6-3.

Former No. 1-ranked Caroline Wozniacki withdrew after hurting her right shoulder in practice but said she expected to be fit the Sydney International next week.

While Serena Williams gets a first-round bye in Brisbane, her older sister Venus Williams will be in action from the first round at the WTA event in Auckland on Monday when she plays 134-ranked Andrea Hlavackova of the Czech Republic.

In Hopman Cup Group B action at Perth, Petra Kvitova and Radek Stepanek combined to give the Czech Republic a 3-0 win over Spain.

Kvitova only lost one game en route to a comprehensive singles win over Anabel Medina Garrigues before Stepanek beat Daniel Munoz-De La Nava 6-2, 6-2. The Czech pair won the mixed doubles 6-3, 6-4.

In evening play in Group A, Grzegorz Panfil upset No. 11-ranked Milos Raonic 7-6, 6-3 to give Poland an unlikely 2-0 victory over Canada. Agnieszka Radwanska gave the Poles a hard-fought 1-0 lead with a 6-3, 6-7, 6-2 win over Eugenie Bouchard.