Auckland: The characteristic grunts and squeals, so loud they could be heard outside the Auckland Tennis Centre and above the noise of traffic entering New Zealand`s largest urban motorway system, were there. So were the crowds.
Maria Sharapova, reputedly the world`s best-paid sportswoman, underlined her commercial pulling power at the Auckland Classic with her presence helping to effectively sell out the entire tournament -- something that had never happened before.
But the former world number one`s decision to shake-up her normal Australian Open preparations by playing in New Zealand left few who saw her in any doubt.
She was nowhere near the same level she was when she captured her last grand slam title at Melbourne Park in 2008.
Three years ago, the tall Russian romped through the Australian Open without dropping a set and was seemingly on her way back to the top of the world.
Less than seven months later she was recovering from surgery on her right shoulder. She did not return for nine months, having dropped outside the top 10 for the first time in more than four years.
A quarter-final showing at Roland Garros in 2009 has been her best grand slam showing since her return to the WTA Tour, while she has claimed just three titles and made four other finals since.
Last year at Melbourne Park she lost in the first round to compatriot Maria Kirilenko and while she added the Memphis and Strasbourg titles to take her career tally to 22, she beat just two players ranked in the top 10.