Sharapova on long road back to the top

<img border='0' align='left' title=' ' src='' class='caption'> Russian Maria Sharapova has had a frustrating year to forget but feels her fitness is returning and is confident of making a big splash at next week's Australia

Updated: January 15, 2010 09:02 IST
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Russian Maria Sharapova has had a frustrating year to forget but feels her fitness is returning and is confident of making a big splash at next week's Australian Open.

Sharapova won the opening Grand Slam of the season in convincing fashion in 2008 but was deprived of defending it last year after failing to recover from shoulder surgery, which kept her out of action until May.

She returned to the circuit and won the Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo in October, but didn't play again until exhibitions in Thailand and Hong Kong this month and has yet to rediscover the form that took her to world number one.

Now ranked 14, the statuesque 22-year-old said the injury layoff taught her never to take anything for granted.

"You realise how fortunate you are to get back," she told reporters at the Hong Kong Classic team tournament, where she posted encouraging wins against Danish teenager Caroline Wozniacki and China's Zheng Jie.

"Obviously I stepped away because I had to. It was frustrating -- very frustrating. And boring ... But there is no better healer than time."

And with the competitive juices again flowing, she is confident that she can make an impact in Melbourne.

"I keep getting stronger. I'm ready for the challenges in Australia -- mentally and physically. I have great memories of the tournament and I'm sure it will be great to be back," she said.

Despite her upbeat outlook, Sharapova has a tough task ahead of her with not just the Williams sisters to contend with but the returning Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin.

Henin, then top seed, was one of the woman she demolished en route to the 2008 title and any rematch would be eagerly anticipated.

Sharapova, who also made the final in 2007 but lost to Serena Williams, said she welcomed the challenge the Belgian posed.

"I think it's great. I think it adds to the great story line of comebacks we've had, with Kim (Clijsters) as well coming back and winning a Grand Slam," she said.

"When you're doing something you love, you're a champion, you're good at it and you don't have it for a while. To get it back, to get that feeling back as a competitor, it's always great."

Despite having slipped down the rankings, Sharapova, a three-time major winner, insists she is not focused on getting the accolade back, instead just concentrating on staying healthy and winning matches.

"I don't think too much about rankings, or even look them," she said on her website.

"I know if I can stay healthy, good things will happen on the tennis court."

For some of her fans, the Russian's outfit at Melbourne Park will be almost as important as the quality of her forehand or whether her serve is back at full power.

But she is not ready to reveal what fashion statement she might be making.

"It's a surprise, but you will like it," she said about her choice of dress.

Spectators at the 2006 tournament could have been excused for thinking she had rushed onto court straight from bed, as she sported a powder-blue baby-doll nightie.

A year late she went for a high-waisted lemon and white chiffon number with an orchid detail on the thigh, before opting for a more restrained outfit in 2008.

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