Organisers of this week's Bank of the West Classic in Stanford, California, could hardly have dreamt of assembling a stronger field. It includes four of the world's top six in Serena Williams, holder of three of the four Grand Slam titles, Venus Williams, who was beaten by her sister in last month's Wimbledon final, Elena Dementieva, the Olympic champion, and Jelena Jankovic, a recent world No 1.
Go to the tournament's official website, however, and you will see that none of the above are given top billing. The principal attraction would appear to be a Russian ranked No 62 in the world who has not won a tournament in more than 15 months.
Women's tennis needs Maria Sharapova like a racket needs strings and the best news the sport has heard in many a month was her response last week to questions about her fitness. Considering that the world's highest-earning sportswoman spent 10 months out following shoulder surgery before her return to the circuit in the spring, it did not seem unreasonable to ask how she felt about playing while "knowing that you're not 100 per cent". The 22-year-old Russian, however, responded curtly. "I am 100 per cent," she insisted. "You're 100 per cent?" the reporter persisted. "Absolutely," Sharapova replied.
Given that the retirements of Justine Henin, Martina Hingis and Kim Clijsters – who will begin her own comeback next month – robbed the women's game of three of its main draws, the last thing the sport needed was a major injury to its biggest card of all.
While the continuing excellence of the Williams sisters can only be commended, their major rivals have offered poor challenges in the last year. Dinara Safina, who was doing what she does best by winning the low-key Slovenia Open in Portoroz last week, is officially world No 1 but continues to falter at the business end of the major tournaments. Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic, the two Serbs, have not maintained their progress, while Dementieva, despite taking Serena to the limit in the semi-finals at Wimbledon, has yet to win a Grand Slam title in 43 attempts.
Those in charge of selling the women's game know, moreover, that sex appeal and personality are just as important as titles and victories, which is why nobody can match Sharapova's off-the-court earning power. Sponsors like Tag Heuer, Canon and Tiffany & Co love both her looks and her feisty character, which help the Russian to earn well in excess of $20m (£12.1m) a year.
Sharapova, nevertheless, has always insisted that sport is what matters most. If her recent European campaign offered hope that her biggest problems were behind her – she reached the quarter-finals at Warsaw and Roland Garros on clay, the semi-finals at Edgbaston and second round at Wimbledon on grass – the next seven weeks on American hard courts could go a long way towards confirming whether she can recapture her former glories. She was due to compete in her opening match in Stanford against Ai Sugiyama last night and will play in Los Angeles and Toronto before heading for the US Open in New York at the end of next month.
Between winning her first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in 2004 and her third at the Australian Open 18 months ago, Sharapova was one of the most consistent of performers, adding a US Open to her portfolio and reaching the semi-finals or better in 10 out of 15 Grand Slam tournaments. The victory in Melbourne saw her at the peak of her powers, winning without dropping a set and beating Henin, the world No 1, and two subsequent No 1s in Jankovic and Ivanovic.
By the middle of April last year Sharapova had also won the titles in Doha and Amelia Island, Svetlana Kuznetsova inflicting her only defeat in the semi-finals at Indian Wells. However, she was suffering problems with her right shoulder and, after early exits at the French Open and Wimbledon, Sharapova stopped playing during a tournament in Montreal. The Russian had surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff tendon and spent months working on her fitness before making a tentative return earlier this year.
Had she ever doubted her chances of coming back? "I never lost faith because I knew the things I had already accomplished were way beyond what I ever dreamt of in my life," she said. "To have that in my pocket already and to look forward to getting back and playing and doing what I love was a challenge, but I had a great team around me that kept me really positive.
"By no means was it easy. I definitely had ups and downs. I had days where I had to push myself more than I've ever had to, mentally rather than physically. It all pays off. Obviously just getting to be able to play tennis again is an achievement in itself. Now it's about preparing myself, forgetting about what I went through, just preparing my game, getting back into the form where I was, and even better."
Despite losing to Gisela Dulko in the second round at Wimbledon, Sharapova said she had been delighted with her return. "I was obviously a little bit disappointed with Wimbledon, but I was really happy with the way my arm held up," she said.
"Coming off shoulder surgery I was trying to prepare my arm for the season. It got up to speed, but then I was playing catch-up in the tennis department. I only had a maximum of five weeks of training before the clay courts. After such a long lay-off, it wasn't enough for me. Even though I pulled through some tough matches at the French Open, physically I didn't have it."
Sharapova said her shoulder now feels "really good". She added: "After Wimbledon I went back to Phoenix and I kept working on it. It's not something that you just stop when it feels good. You have to keep working on it. You have to keep getting it stronger. For the rest of my career I'll be doing shoulder exercises. It won't be as fun as I want it to be. It's all a routine. But everyone has injuries. It's part of the game. If you want to be back out there, you've got to work hard."
The former world No 1 has had to rebuild her serve. "After surgery I definitely had to shorten up my motion to make it easier on my arm," she said. "That's something that I'm still working on and still tuning up. Is it where I want it to be? I still think that I have work to do. But I think it's going to come along. Like I said, there's nothing that hard work can't achieve."
She added: "There's no better way to get into shape as a tennis player than playing tennis. I can do all the running or Pilates I want, work myself until I'm blue in the face, but when you go on court for the first time after months on end, your body isn't used to the whole thing. Now it's a matter of forgetting what I went through and getting on court and trying to do the right thing over and over. These tournaments are going to be crucial."
Maria and Mariah: Sharapova in her own words
It's tough playing tennis and being Mother Teresa at the same time and making everyone happy.
After the crowd turned on her during a match at the French Open
I always have the same answer to this question. I've done this ever since I started playing tennis and I'm not going to change. This question only comes up at Wimbledon where you guys have The Sun and the Daily Mail and all that.
After being asked about her grunting
I'll get her a ticket, no problem. Maybe not box access, but a good ticket. She'll get a front-row seat in exchange for a good ticket at her concert.
On being told that the singer Mariah Carey is a fan
Oh, goodness. You Italians. Only in Italy.
After a journalist in Rome asked about what a woman looks for in a man
I would have loved to be having lunch then, too. I'd rather be having a chocolate croissant than being down 3-0.
On being asked about the spaces in the crowd during a lunchtime match at the French Open
It's awful. I always call my friends over to help me. I'm not very patient. I can't wait for things to boil and to fry and make sure it's not red and all of that.
On her cooking
We're getting emails from stamp collecting magazines asking if I can do an interview. I mean, it's just a hobby. I'm actually good telling stories, but that one I should have never mentioned.
After revealing a penchant for philatelyReuse content