By Simon Cambers
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Short of tournament sharpness in the build-up to the Australian Open because of injury, Maria Sharapova has found a novel way of playing herself into form - roughing up the local boys.
The Russian world number two has been getting into the groove by beating up on Australia's top young players, having pulled out of Brisbane with a neck injury last week.
Sharapova has found some willing opponents in a couple of Australians, including Luke Saville, last year's junior champion at Melbourne Park.
"I played a couple of the junior boys here - actually a good couple of Australian kids," Sharapova told reporters on Saturday.
"I think one of them got a wild card in the main draw."
That was Saville, who gave French Open champion Sharapova a real run for her money as she looked to blow away the cobwebs in time for her run at a second Australian Open title.
"We didn't actually finish," the four-time grand slam champion said. "The set took too long."
The other hitting partner was 16-year-old Thanasi Kokkinakis, a player tipped as having a bright future and who impressed when stepping in for the injured John Isner at the Hopman Cup last week.
Unfortunately for Kokkinakis, Sharapova's fiercely competitive streak ensured that she would not allow him the pleasure of a victory.
"One of them was really on top of me and then I got really mad," said the 25-year-old, who tried to protect his identity. "I think he had eight set points and I ended up winning the set.
"I'm not going to tell who it is," she laughed. "Too embarrassed. I don't think he slept well after that one!
"It was just nice to be able to have different types of game styles as well."
Sharapova woke up with pain in her neck and collarbone area on December 23 and immediately pulled out of a planned exhibition in South Korea.
Having spent almost a year off the women's tour in 2008-09 after surgery on a career-threatening shoulder injury, Sharapova admitted she was wary of any pain in that part of her body.
But the 2008 Australian Open champion said she hoped her experience would see her through if her game hits full throttle in time.
"You maybe give yourself that extra slack in case you do make a few more errors (or) you don't concentrate maybe as well as you would if you were in that match groove," said Sharpova.
"But just because you're rusty doesn't mean you're not going to play well," she added. You might maybe go for a little bit more in certain situations."
Sharapova takes on fellow Russian Olga Puchkova in the first round on Monday.
(Editing by Alastair Himmer)