Serena triumph shows the need for Sharapova return

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The Independent Online

Maria Sharapova, who has not played for six months because of a shoulder injury, is due to return to competition at an indoor tournament in Paris next week. Her return cannot come quickly enough after the Australian Open underlined once again the lack of depth at the top of the women's game.

Serena Williams's 6-0, 6-3 victory over Dinara Safina in Saturday night's final here was a triumph for the American, who has now won 10 Grand Slam titles, but emphasised the size of the gap between her and all the other leading women, other than her sister Venus. Safina, a gutsy fighter, has been one of the most consistent players on the tour since last spring but was utterly outclassed in a final that lasted less than an hour.

Where are the players who can offer a meaningful challenge to the Williams sisters, who between them hold three of the four Grand Slam crowns? Ana Ivanovic, the French Open champion, has achieved little since her triumph at Roland Garros last year. Jelena Jankovic, who will be ousted by Serena as world No 1 when the updated rankings list is published today, has yet to win a Grand Slam title. Safina has lost her two major finals and Elena Dementieva, the Olympic champion, has not reached one for five years.

Sharapova, who won the title here in emphatic style last year, may be the one player with a big enough game to take on the sisters, though her long-term future will remain a doubt until she proves that she has overcome her shoulder problem.

In the past the Russian's commitment to her sport has never been in doubt, but, particularly given her commercial success away from the court, there might come a point where she no longer wants to fight her body. That would be a savage blow to the women's game, particularly given the recent retirements of Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters and Martina Hingis.

Unsubstantiated rumours of a comeback by Henin, who shocked everyone with her decision to quit last year, keep resurfacing. If the former world No 1 could recover anything like her previous form there is little doubt she would make a massive impact if she were to return.

As for Williams, there is no indication of any weakening of her desire to win on the highest stages, with her fourth victory here as convincing as any of her past Grand Slam triumphs. ''I feel like I can go for ever,'' she said.