SYDNEY // The defending champion Maria Sharapova has withdrawn from the Australian Open due to her slower than expected recovery following a shoulder injury. Sharapova has advised tournament officials that she would not be able to defend her title at Melbourne Park. It starts on Jan 19. Her Australian Open triumph started an 18-match winning streak last season, enabling the Russian briefly to reclaim her No 1 ranking in May. However, the shoulder injury hampered her progress in the second half of the year, forcing her out of the Beijing Olympics and the US Open and ending her season. "I am very sorry to announce that I am not going to be able to defend my title at this year's Australian Open," Sharapova said in a statement. "My shoulder is doing great, but I just started training a few weeks ago and I am just not near the level I need to be to compete at the highest levels." The Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said he was disappointed for Sharapova, who beat Ana Ivanovic of Serbia in the 2008 final. "She played some amazing tennis on the Rod Laver Arena last year and has a massive legion of fans in Australia. "I know she has been working around the clock to try and get back from the shoulder injury. In the end, time beat her this year."
Serena Williams, who beat Samantha Stosur in three tough sets at the Sydney International on Sunday, said she was aware of Sharapova's ongoing shoulder concerns. "I know she's been dealing with some injuries," said Williams. "She's been having a tough time. Everyone has tough injuries." Asked if she'd miss the challenge of playing Sharapova in Melbourne, Williams added: "I'm focused on the rest of the people and the rest of the draw. I think my major threat, is like you see people today like Sam Stosur in that first-round match who are playing unbelievable and they want to do their best." *AP