|Maria Sharapova serves in her first-round match against Maria Kirilenko at the JPMorgan Chase Open© Harry How/Getty Images|
CARSON, Calif. (AP) -- Maria Sharapova took the first step toward a JPMorgan Chase Open title and the No. 1 ranking with a 7-6 (7), 6-2 win over close friend Maria Kirilenko in a second-round match Tuesday night.
Sharapova, playing for the first time since losing in the semifinal last month at Wimbledon, struggled at times in the first set, losing serve three times and breaking Kirilenko three times before winning the tiebreaker.
Things went much better for the 18-year-old player in the second set. Sharapova lost just four points in winning five straight games for a 5-1 lead, then closed out the 1-hour, 50-minute match on serve when Kirilenko, who needed medical attention for a strained right elbow after the set's third game, hit a forehand return into the net.
Top-seeded Sharapova can replace Lindsay Davenport as No. 1 in the WTA Tour rankings by reaching the semifinals and beating opponents ranked highly enough to give her 28 bonus points. She got eight of them for the win over No. 51 Kirilenko.
If she doesn't get the bonus points against a field weakened by the withdrawals of Davenport, Serena Williams and others, she will have to reach the final to assure herself of being No. 1 when the next rankings come out Monday.
"I'm more focused on winning the tournament than on being No. 1 right now,'' she said.
She played about as well as she could have hoped for.
"There was a lot of rustiness,'' Sharapova said. "The first match (after a layoff) is always tough. You practice hard and work on a lot of things, but the actual competition is totally different. I was just trying to get in a groove, get my feet wet.''
Earlier Tuesday, Varvara Lepchenko, a 19-year-old player from Uzbekistan, advanced to the third round with a 6-4, 6-2 victory over Silviaja Talaja of Croatia. Lepchenko got into the 56-player field as a "lucky loser'' when Ai Sugiyama withdrew.
Lepchenko has had even more good fortune by drawing as her opponents two more lucky losers, Galina Voskoboeva and Silvija Talaja of Croatia. Lepchenko beat Talaja 6-4, 6-2 on Tuesday afternoon after defeating Voskoboeva 6-1, 7-6 (6) a day earlier.
In other matches, former tournament champion Conchita Martinez, 33, of Spain was a 6-1, 6-4 winner over Mashona Washington; Iveta Benasova of the Czech Republic beat rising star Sania Mirza of India, 6-3, 1-6, 6-4; Eleni Daniilidou of Greece defeated Maria Emilia Salerno of Argentina, 7-6 (2), 7-5; Jill Craybas outlasted Virgia Ruano Pascual of Spain, 6-0, 4-6, 6-3; and Acura Classic semifinalist Shuai Peng of China overcame Maria Vento-Kabchi of Venezuela, 7-6 (5), 6-0.
The tournament continues through Sunday.