Maria Sharapova aims for top return at Australian Open

Sharapova has recovered from her injury problems

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The Independent Online

Ten years after Maria Sharapova first became world No 1, the Russian has the top spot in her sights once again.

Serena Williams, who currently leads the rankings, is the favourite to win the Australian Open, which starts here tomorrow, but Sharapova is poised to take advantage if the American  slips up.

Williams won her fifth Australian Open in 2010 but has not been past the quarter-finals since and failed to impress in her only outing of the year so far at the Hopman Cup. Sharapova, whose only Melbourne triumph was in 2008, began her campaign in contrasting style by winning the title in Brisbane.

Sharapova lost in the fourth round here last year to Dominika Cibulkova, the eventual runner-up, but goes into the tournament in better shape this time. Twelve months ago, she was still recovering from the shoulder problem that had seen her miss the latter part of 2013.

“A lot of my off-season last year had to do with rehab and getting myself healthy,” Sharapova said. “This year I felt like I could really train and push myself a little bit more physically. I think last year, especially towards the end of the season, you saw how physical and how well everyone was moving, especially with the courts being a little bit slower. I wanted to feel that I was ready and fit for the beginning of this year.”

Although encouraged by her early-season form, Sharapova insisted: “I’m not going into next week throwing flowers at myself or anything. I’m starting from scratch. I’m hungry. I’m determined to do better.”

Williams, meanwhile, admitted she had not been happy with her build-up but added: “I’m never really happy about my practice or preparation, so maybe that’s a good sign. I definitely feel better now than I did a couple of weeks ago, but I still want to improve some things.

“I feel like I should be doing some things better, but every day I can see something coming through so there’s a little light at the end of the tunnel.”

Li Na, last year’s champion, has retired but there are plenty of other contenders for the crown. Petra Kvitova has just won the Sydney title, while Simona Halep started off her campaign by winning in Shenzhen. Eugenie Bouchard’s 2014 breakthrough began with her run to the semi-finals here, Ana Ivanovic loves playing in Australia and Agnieszka Radwanska will hope to be inspired by her new coach, Martina Navratilova.