The welcome renaissance of Maria Sharapova

Such is the star power of Maria Sharapova that her victory at Rome on Sunday was like a ray of sunshine warming the women's game.

Maria Sharapova's win in Rome gives her hope of a good showing at the French Open.
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Such is the star power of Maria Sharapova that her victory at Rome on Sunday was like a ray of sunshine warming the women's game.

Venus and Serena Williams out of the French Open? The status of Kim Clijsters unclear? The world No 1 the queen of underwhelm?

So what? Maria is back!

Sharapova won a championship for the first time in nearly a year and did it on clay to reintroduce herself as a serious contender to win the only slam not already on her CV, the one at Roland Garros.

The tall Russian pushed aside Caroline Wozniacki, the placeholder of the world No 1 slot, in the Rome semi-finals, then dismissed Samantha Stosur 6-2, 6-4 in the final.

"I surely wasn't the favourite going into a clay-court event like this," Sharapova said in Rome. "To beat players who have had great results on clay means a lot to me.

"I may not be the best mover or best slider on clay, or the strongest player with the strongest legs, but there's a lot more than that in tennis."

Sharapova is still only 24, but her tactical awareness is high, a result of her five consecutive end-of-season top-10 rankings through 2008, her four stints at No 1 and all the big matches she has played since she first emerged in 2003.

She is renown for her fighting spirit, which further attracts fans to her. Martina Navratilova once said of Sharapova: "With her, it's not over till she's shaking hands," perhaps recalling her rally from 2-6, 1-3 down to win at Wimbledon in 2004.

She also won the US Open in 2006 and the Australian Open in 2008. Her career took a downturn beginning early in 2009 and continuing through last year as she battled injuries to her right should and right elbow.

But those ailments looked like history as the Roman crowd cheered her to victory she moved up to No 7 in the world and makes her a contender for the honours in France.

Sharapova is one of the handful of players in the game whose presence as a contender changes the complexion of a tournament. She could win the French, but as a player also known for being one of the most pleasant and personable on tour, she will sell tickets and move television ratings. Her only known on-court failing is her habit of grunt while striking the ball.

But tennis officials and fans certainly will be happy to deal with her noise-making if it means she is playing deep into tournaments, at least until the game produces more stars of her luminosity.

The week on the ATP and WTA Tours

Men's tour this week

Novak Djokovic again defeated Rafael Nadal in a clay-court final, beating him 6-4, 6-4 in Rome. After losing his first nine matches on clay to Nadal, he has beaten him twice in eight days. Djokovic, increased his unbeaten streak to 37, five wins short of John McEnroe's record for best start to a season.

ATP rankings
Player Country Points
1. R Nadal ESP 12,075
2. N Djokovic SRB 11,665
3. R Federer SUI 8.390
4. A Murray GBR 6,085
5. R Soderling SWE 5,435

Women’s tour this week

The Russian Maria Sharapova defeated Samantha Stosur of Australia 6-2, 6-4 to win on clay in Rome. In the semi-final the three-time major winner dismissed world No 1 Caroline Wozniacki 7-5, 6-3. Stosur was playing in her first final since the French Open last year.

ATP rankings
Player Country Points
1. C Wozniacki DEN 10,105
2. K Clijsters BEL 8,115
3. V Zvonareva RUS 7,675
4. V Azarenka BLR 5,425
5. F Schiavone ITA 5,047

Open de Nice Cote d’Azur

Place: Nice, France
Duration: Through Saturday
Prize money: US$563,000 (Dh2m)
Surface: Clay
Defending champion: Richard Gasquet

Brussels Open by GDF Suez

Place: Brussels, Belgium
Duration: Through Saturday
Prize money: $618,000
Surface: Clay
Defending champion: Inaugural event