Maria Sharapova's declaration on making a return visit to the scene of her 2008 Australian Open success, now that her badly damaged shoulder is close to returning to its venomous best, adds further weight to the view that this year's women's event could turn out to be one of the most exciting in recent years. Sharapova's lengthy absence from the game she once dominated was as damaging as the self-inflicted disappearances of two other former world No 1s - the Belgian rivals Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin, both of whom have recently come out of retirement.
Having all three of those champions back in the draw is a major boost for what had become a stagnating WTA Tour. "The shoulder is so much better now than it was early last September," said Sharapova, who has re-established herself in the world hierarchy well enough to earn the protection of one of the top 16 seeds. That sets her up for a possible fourth-round clash against her fragile compatriot Dinara Safina, the most unconvincing of a cluster of players who have risen recently to No 1 status.
Sharapova, winner of three grand slam titles, added: "Maybe a few months ago I didn't really know how my shoulder would feel on any day. Now it's a lot more consistent and I believe I can get my serve back to where it used to be." Preceding Sharapova as Australian Open champion was Henin, who "retired" a little more than a year later when firmly in command of the world's top ranking. An eighth grand slam title for her is by no means out of the question after her impressive display in reaching the final of her comeback tournament in Brisbane a week ago.
A stronger option here is the woman who beat her in that thrilling final. Clijsters has already made a big mark in her "second career" by claiming last year's US Open in fairy tale fashion and back-to-back majors is a realistic possibility. All three of those re-emerging luminaries are favoured by the draw putting them in the opposite half to defending champion Serena Williams and her big sister Venus. Serena tried to shrug off the knee injury which contributed to her defeat by Elena Dementieva in last week's Sydney final but there are obvious doubts about her capabilities of surviving the full fortnight. The same could be said about Venus in view of her arrival into a first-round encounter tomorrow with Czech Lucie Safarova without playing a single competitive warm-up match.
Rod Laver Arena From 4am: 14-Maria Sharapova (Russia) v Maria Kirilenko (Russia); 15-Kim Clijsters (Belgium) v Valerie Tetreault (Canada); 5-Andy Murray (Britain) v Kevin Anderson (South Africa) From noon 2-Rafael Nadal (Spain) v Peter Luczak (Australia); Jelena Dokic (Australia) v 27-Alisa Kleybanova (Russia) Hisense Arena From 4am 2-Dinara Safina (Russia) v Magdalena Rybarikova (Slovakia); 7-Andy Roddick (US) v Thiemo de Bakker (Netherlands); 4-Juan Martin Del Potro (Argentina) v Michael Russell (US); Justine Henin (Belgium) v Kirsten Flipkens (Belgium) Margaret Court Arena From 4 am Yanina Wickmayer (Belgium) v Alexandra Dulgheru (Romania); Guillaume Rufin (France) v Bernard Tomic (Australia); 5-Elena Dementieva (Russia) v Vera Dushevina (Russia); 8-Jelena Jankovic (Serbia) v Monica Niculescu (Romania); Matthew Ebden (Australia) v 12-Gael Monfils (France) (Numbers before players' names denote seeding)