Henin's absence clears way for Sharapova to close on No1
Richard Jago in Doha
Monday February 18, 2008
Maria Sharapova will make her first return to the WTA Tour this week after her Australian Open success with predictions that she will soon take the world No1 position away from Justine Henin.
Sharapova lost only 32 games in 14 sets and seven matches in succeeding in Melbourne last month, including a quarter-final dismantling of Henin, who yesterday won the Antwerp Diamond Games. However, more pertinent to the 20-year-old now is to realise predictions that she can move to the top of the world rankings and dominate the women's game over the next few years.
She has received a bye in the first round of the Qatar Total Open and will not be action until tomorrow at the earliest. Her Australian victory felt like a watershed in her career and, two weeks ago, she threw off another yoke by making a successful Fed Cup debut for Russia.
For her this was an important statement of an identity which she has clung to ever since she was farmed off from Siberia to Nick Bollettieri's academy in Florida at the age of seven. It is one which has survived despite a taste for fast food and a liking for Pippi Longstocking, a children's book heroine. To have team-mates applauding her into the locker room after her first match, rather than questioning why she comes to watch them or casting doubts on the standard of her spoken Russian, must have been extremely therapeutic.
She should be the unofficial favourite to win the Tour's latest tier-one event, even though she is still seeded only fourth. There is no doubting she shares this feeling of optimism about her, but she is already too sage to couch it in such terms.
"After having so many setbacks last year, visiting so many doctors, and MRI offices, winning just feels so right," was her most pertinent comment.
Henin is not in Doha, which means Sharapova could close the gap on her. She should nevertheless face a significant test of her suddenly acquired accolade as the Tour's best player, especially from the Serbs Ana Ivanovic, who faced Sharapova in the Melbourne final, and Jelena Jankovic, the world No3, and possibly Venus Williams and Amélie Mauresmo.
Altogether 17 of the world's top 20 are in town, and one of them is Shahar Peer, whose decision to become the first Israeli to compete in a Gulf state has caused something of a sensation. She will get round-the-clock security and, apparently, be "treated like the emir's wife".
"She's an entry; she's a good player. It's a normal situation, and it gets a normal reaction from us," said the tournament director, Ayman Azmy.