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Maria primed for another run at No. 1

By Scott Riley,
Tennis Editor


Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Former world No. 1 Maria Sharapova could make a return trip to the top of the women's game in the very near future, as the powerful Russian star hopes to be the beneficiary of some rankings unrest in front of her.

Serena Williams, of course, recently returned to action, but is still on the mend after missing nearly a full year on the tour due to injury and other health issues; Kim Clijsters has also battled injuries in recent months; and earlier this year, the great Justine Henin retired from tennis for a second time, paving the way for the Maria Sharapovas of the world.

Specifically Maria Sharapova.

With the top of the women's game in such disarray, spearheaded by Grand-Slam- title-challenged Caroline Wozniacki, maybe it's time for Maria to assume that lofty No. 1 perch again for the first time since 2008.

Maria Sharapova
Former world No. 1 Maria Sharapova is a three-time Grand Slam champion, seeking her first major title since the 2008 Aussie Open.
The 6-foot-2 bomber first ascended to No. 1 in the summer of 2005, becoming the first-ever Russian woman to do so. It occurred roughly 13 months after she captured her first-ever Grand Slam title by stunning the mighty Serena in the 2004 Wimbledon finale...as a then 17-year-old.

Sharapova was a fixture inside the Top 10 for five years (238 consecutive weeks at one point) before running into a series of injuries, most notably a right-shoulder one that required surgery in '08. She was laid off for nearly 10 months before returning for duty in the summer of 2009.

Despite reaching five finals (2-3) in her first 10 tournaments in 2010, Maria struggled to regain her once-dominant form, which included one of the biggest serves in the women's game, over the next year-and-a-half, slowed by some continued shoulder woes and an elbow injury, but the Bradenton, Florida resident now appears to be just about all the way back.

"It's still about improving the little things to get more consistent," Sharapova said this week. "I've had to make a lot of tough choices in the last year but I'm going in the right direction and, little by little, those choices are paying off."

The 24-year-old, currently coached by Thomas Hogstedt and Michael Joyce, certainly has shined in recent months, including a trip into her first Wimbledon final in seven years earlier this month. Unfortunately for Maria, she lost to rocketing Czech slugger Petra Kvitova in the finale at the famed All England Club.

The 11-year pro and three-time Grand Slam champ titled in Rome this past spring and, in addition to her runner-up finish at Wimbledon, Sharapova was also a runner-up at the so-called "Fifth Slam" in Miami, where she succumbed to Belarusian star Victoria Azarenka back in April.

Maria Sharapova
Sharapova reached her first Wimbledon final in seven years earlier this month.
Maria reached the fourth round at the first major of the year in Melbourne back in January and was a semifinalist in June at the French Open, which still remains as the only Grand Slam title she has yet to capture.

Sharapova, who is engaged to Slovenian NBA player Sasha Vujacic of the New Jersey Nets and formerly of the Los Angeles Lakers, has reached at least the semifinals in five of her last six events on the WTA this season and is now one of the big favorites at the upcoming U.S. Open, which will commence in less than five weeks in New York City.

FYI: Sharapova and Vujacic have been an item since 2009.

Back to tennis.

The five-time Grand Slam finalist hasn't reached as U.S. Open championship match since winning the title in Flushing back in 2006. Could 2011 mark the return trip to the final for the native of Nyagan (that's in Siberia)?

Off the court (as well as on it, I guess), the 23-time WTA titlist Sharapova is the world's highest-paid female athlete, earning $24.5 million in endorsements and prize money in 2010, according to Forbes. She also enjoyed that same distinction in 2008, when she pocketed a whopping $26 million.

In January of last year, Maria signed an eight-year contract with Nike, worth $70 million.

Her career on-court prize money is just over $16 million, which is currently good enough for 10th on the women's all-time list.

Maria Sharapova
Sharapova landed in the final at the so-called "Fifth Slam" in Miami this past spring.
Sharapova's public profile obviously extends well beyond tennis, as she has been featured in a number of modeling assignments, including a feature in the famed Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.

In addition to Nike, she also endorses products for the likes of Head, Sony Ericsson, Evian and TAG Heuer and is the face of several fashion houses, most notably Cole Haan. And since 2007, she has been a United Nations Development Program Goodwill Ambassador, with specific concerns for the Chernobyl Recovery and Development Program.

Maria is seeded second at this week's hardcourt U.S. Open Series event in Stanford, where she is already into the quarterfinals (at the time of this article) and was last year's runner-up to this week's top seed in California -- Azarenka.

Sharapova entered 2011 as the No. 18 player in the world. She's now up to No. 5 and is probably not done climbing the rankings ladder just yet this season.

Of course she can expect to face resistance from the likes of Wozniacki, perhaps Clijsters, Azarenka, Li Na, Kvitova, and Serena for the rest of the campaign...but I think she's up to the challenge.

Don't you?

Ace or double fault? Send your comments to Scott Riley at sriley@sportsnetwork.com.

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