The year is nearly two months old and Maria Sharapova has yet to taste defeat. The 20-year-old Russian began her 2008 campaign with victory in the Australian Open, won both of her rubbers against Israel in the Fed Cup and yesterday defeated Vera Zvonareva in the final of the Qatar Open.
Having endured a difficult 2007, when she was troubled by a serious shoulder injury, Sharapova is back in the form that first took her to the top of the world rankings two years ago. Zvonareva, her 23-year-old compatriot, made a fight of it in the second set in Doha before losing 6-1, 2-6, 6-0 as Sharapova won her 13th match in succession this year.
Sharapova now heads here for the Barclays Dubai Championships, which begin today and hold the fascinating prospect of a rematch with Justine Henin, the current world No 1. Henin beat Sharapova in the final here two years ago and in a marathon final at the 2007 season-ending Sony Ericsson Championships, but the Belgian was comprehensively outplayed when they met in the quarter-finals in Melbourne last month. Henin, however, enjoyed a morale-boosting victory in her return tournament in Antwerp recently and loves these courts, having won the event in all four of her appearances.
The quality of the field is such that Sharapova is only No 5 seed, behind Henin, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic. The latter three, however, were not in the best shape in Doha, where cold and windy conditions led to several surprise results. Kuznetsova and Jankovic lost to Sybille Bammer and Li Na respectively, while Ivanovic withdrew with a foot injury after the second round.
Seven of the world's top 10 women are in the Dubai draw, the only absentees being Serena and Venus Williams and Daniela Hantuchova. Serena pulled out after having oral surgery, Venus did not enter (the sisters rarely play in the same tournaments outside the major events) and Hantuchova withdrew with injury.
Even Poland's Agnieszka Radwanska, who knocked Sharapova out of last year's US Open and reached the Doha semi-finals before losing to the Russian, had to qualify. The world No 20 brushed aside Elena Baltacha for the loss of only three games in the first round yesterday and then returned to court to complete a 6-0, 6-0 victory over the Czech Republic's Eva Hrdinova, who had disposed of the only other Briton, Katie O'Brien, 7-6, 6-2.
Sharapova is seeded to meet Kuznetsova in the quarter-finals, with either Jankovic or Anna Chakvetadze likely to await in the semi-finals. Henin's projected opponents en route to the final are Nadia Petrova, Marion Bartoli, who shocked the Belgian in the semi-finals at Wimbledon last year, and Ivanovic.
The men's tournament begins next week and has an even more outstanding line-up. The organisers' deep pockets have helped to entice nine of the world's top 10 players (James Blake is the odd man out), with Andy Murray and Andy Roddick among the debutants.
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