Men's Tennis (ATP)
Sharapova eyes return to the top

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Maria Sharapova hopes that a nagging right shoulder injury is behind her now so she can concentrate on returning to the top of women's tennis.

The 21-year-old missed quite a bit of action in 2008 because of a torn rotator cuff, an injury that forced the big-serving superstar to miss such key tournaments as the Summer Games in China and the U.S. Open. She had performed in 23 straight majors before skipping America's Open.

Sharapova was one of five different women to hold the No. 1 ranking in '08, a campaign that saw her post an outstanding 32-4 record, including her first- ever Australian Open title, which also marked her third career major singles championship. She piled up wins over fellow stalwarts Lindsay Davenport, Olympic gold medalist Elena Dementieva, the great Justine Henin, current world No. 1 and U.S. Open runner-up Jelena Jankovic, and French Open champ Ana Ivanovic on her way to the big Down Under title.

Maria also made her Fed Cup debut for Russia in February, going 2-0 in a pair of singles rubbers in a routine quarterfinal victory over an overmatched Israel.

The 6-foot-2 Sharapova owns three major titles and is a former world No. 1.
She went on to reclaim the top ranking in the spring when the reigning (at the time) French and U.S. Open champion Henin announced her sudden retirement from tennis. Sharapova wound up being the top seed at the French Open, where she came within two points of becoming the first-ever top-seeded female to lose in the first round there in the Open Era. The determined star, however, ultimately defeated fellow Russian Evgeniya Rodina in three sets, including a 14-game third. Unfortunately for her, the slender Russian would fall to compatriot Dinara Safina in the fourth round in south Paris.

The Siberian native (who holds residences in California and the aforementioned Israel) settled for three titles in 2008, giving her 19 (including 14 on her beloved hardcourts) for her lucrative career. She's earned more than $12 million on the court and several mill more off it, making her the world's highest-paid female athlete. Her sponsors, alphabetically, are (get out the calculator): Canon, Cole Haan, Colgate, Gatorade, Land Rover, Nike, Parlux, Prince, Sony Ericsson, Tag Heuer, Tiffany & Co., and Tropicana.

I believe that's 12. You'll let me know if I missed any.

According to Forbes magazine, the recession-proof Sharapova raked in roughly $26 million this year.

Now that's a big win!

"Masha" won 24 of her first 25 matches this past season, including a torrid season-opening 18-match winning streak, and appeared well on her way to a monster year. But nobody told her shoulder.

The powerful baseliner/former Sports Illustrated swimsuit model was forced to shut it down for the year in late July after pulling out of a hardcourt event in Montreal.

Up until this year, the 6-foot-2 star had finished inside the WTA's Top 5 four straight years, including a year-end No. 2 spot in 2006. Sharapova has achieved No. 1 status on a few occasions, including her first landing there in August of 2005, but she has yet to finish a campaign at the top of the heap.

And because of injuries this past season, Maria is now outside the Top 5, currently resting at No. 9. She also suffered perhaps the biggest upset loss of her career, at Wimbledon, where little-known fellow Russian Alla Kudryavtseva shocked the tall beauty in a second-round affair.

Sharapova is seen here at a WTA Tour fashion show in Montreal.
The Kudryavtseva debacle aside, Sharapova's other '08 losses were respectable ones, coming at the hands of fellow Top-10 stars Svetlana Kuznetsova, U.S. Open titlist and Wimbledon runner-up Serena Williams and the Roland Garros and Olympics finalist Safina. It was Kuznetsova who halted Maria's season-opening 18-match run.

FYI, the hard-hitting Sharapova is a combined 85-20 in her career Grand Slam events, including titles at Wimbledon 2004, as a spry 17-year-old, and the 2006 U.S. Open. The reigning Aussie Open champ still needs the French Open to complete the coveted career Grand Slam.

But who hasn't done that, right?

Sharapova, who has been honored by the WTA as its 2003 Newcomer of the Year and the 2004 Player of the Year and Most Improved Player of the Year, is 3-1 in four career major finals and reached the semis at the French Open in 2007. She's also 4-1 lifetime against the current "No. 1" Jankovic (who has never won a major title, but somehow sits atop the rankings?).

Sharapova has also reached a pair of season-ending Tour Championships finales, going 1-1, with a title/windfall coming back in '04.

When Sharapova returns to Melbourne next month, she'll carry a 25-5 lifetime record into the Aussie Open, where she's appeared in at least the semifinals the last four years. The Russian glamour girl has played in the last two Aussie Open finals, settling for a split.

Sharapova is expected to return to the courts at an exhibition event in Hong Kong early next month, which would mark her first action in over five months.

And if Maria can stay healthy (and that's a big if), you better believe she'll make a return trip to the top.

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