Maria Sharapova shapes up for Australian Open return

FORMER world No 1 Maria Sharapova admits she faces a tough task of returning to the top of the women's game.

After undergoing shoulder surgery in October 2008, the three-time grand slam winner was out for ten months and dropped outside the world's top 100. However, the 22-year-old eventually made an encouraging return last year and has managed to rise to 15th in the world as she steps up her preparations for the Australian Open in Hong Kong this week.

The 2008 Australian Open champion said: "I am ready for the challenges Australia will bring, both mentally and physically. I have great memories of the tournament."

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Sharapova still needs to visit the gym six times a week for specific work on her shoulder which she says has improved over the last two months. The Russian is also hoping to reap the benefits of a prolonged rest after cutting last season short by finishing in October after landing her only title of the year in Tokyo.

"I have always had a certain plan throughout my career of the tournaments I would play and I can't physically play 30 tournaments a year. I need a few breaks," she said. "Mentally and physically you want to pace yourself. It is important to know when the right time is to get at a certain level. Things don't always work out how you want, but you want to be fresh for the big ones."

After being unable to defend her Australian crown last year due to injury, Hong Kong again represents Sharapova's final preparation before the first grand slam of the year in Melbourne after she beat world No 4 Venus Williams in Thailand last week.

"The match against Venus was fun," said Sharapova, who won 6-3, 6-4. "The first match of the year you never know what to expect, you are always just getting your feet back on the ground.

"It was a pretty competitive match, but we were both glad it was only two sets as it was very hot. There are always many little things you can work on, but it was a good place to start."

Williams, world No 5 Caroline Wozniacki, Vera Zvonareva and Victoria Azarenka also line up at the Hong Kong Tennis Classic this week with Sharapova facing China's Zheng Jie tomorrow.

Meanwhile, Yanina Wickmayer made a winning start to 2010 at the Auckland Classic by beating Julia Goerges. Belgian Wickmayer, a semi-finalist at the US Open last year, was granted a wild card for the event after a Brussels court lifted a year-long ban imposed for falling foul of the controversial 'whereabouts' drug-testing system on three occasions.

She made smooth progress past Goerges, winning 6-3, 7-5, and spoke afterwards of her relief at being back on court. The third seed said: "I was really happy to play again. It has been a tough time for me, so it was nice to be on the court again to compete."