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Maria Sharapova shadow over Williams fortunes

Maria Sharapova smiles down from billboards across the globe, endorses blue-chip businesses and commands over six million Internet search results every day.

Sadly for the WTA Tour, the world’s highest-profile, and biggest earning sportswoman, has been nursing a shoulder injury since August.

With the Russian sidelined, Justine Henin in retirement and two Serbs who suffer vertigo anywhere near the rankings summit, one Miami newspaper last week suggested the WTA should now be rebranded the ‘Williams Tennis Association’.

It was only slightly tongue in cheek.

Ten years after Serena Williams won the first of her 10 Grand Slam titles, the American, only 27, is number one in the world, a position she first occupied in 2002.

She may have hobbled to defeat in the Miami final against the improving Victoria Azarenka, but the feeling persists that the women’s game struggles to supply the sparks generated by Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer’s epic confrontations.

Serena and elder sister Venus, five in the world but who also reached number one seven years ago, currently hold three of the four Grand Slams and could clinch a family sweep at Roland Garros in June.

With 74 titles and almost 50 million dollars in prize money between them, the sisters can afford to be virtually part-time players.

Serena has played just five tournaments in 2009, winning 21 matches to three defeats; one of those was against her sister.

Venus has appeared at only four events, with a 15-2 match record. Even one of the two losses was a family affair as Serena evened up their lifetime head-to-heads at 10-10 in the Miami semi-finals.

Worryingly for her rivals, Serena sees herself playing on for some time to come.

“I feel like there’s next year and next week, and then there’s the year after and the year after,” she said after Azarenka shattered her hopes of becoming a record six-time winner in Miami.

While the Williams sisters counter-attack against pretenders, three-time Grand Slam title-winner Sharapova continues to recover from shoulder injury.

Her absence from the US Open, Olympics as well this year’s Australian Open, which Serena captured in a desperately poor final against Dinara Safina, has seen her ranking slump to 30.

However, it hasn’t dented the 21-year-old’s earning power or the importance of her to the future well-being of the tour.

“Let’s say you want a global female athlete,” Max Eisenbud, Sharapova’s agent at IMG who has represented her since she was 11, told SportsBusiness Journal.

“It’s really just Maria. She is global because tennis is global, (and add) the fact that she is Russian, so she is not American but Americans think she is American.

“It makes her more appealing. Not to take anything away from Venus and Serena, they are great champions, but they don’t mean as much, say, in Korea as Maria does.”

From endorsements, Sharapova, who is not expected to be back in competition until the Rome claycourt event in May, is believed to earn around USD 30 million; her on court earnings total a relatively modest 10.2 million.

Only time will tell if Belarussian 19-year-old Azarenka can be a sustained threat to the established order.

Others have been found wanting. Jelena Jankovic made world number one in August last year, a controversial elevation for a woman without a Grand Slam title.

Her recent form has been disastrous with opening round defeats in Indian Wells and Miami.

“I’m not the same player I used to be,” she admitted.

Serbian compatriot Ana Ivanovic inherited the number one spot after Henin’s shock retirement in May 2008 paved the way for her French Open win.

Ivanovic at least managed to make the Indian Wells final before a second round slump in Miami.

Kim Clijsters’s decision to return to the tour later in 2009, after almost two years away to start a family, could provide a competitive twist.

“She’s a tough player,” said Serena of the Belgian former world number one and 2005 US Open champion.

“She was always a fighter. I think she will eventually be able to get to the level she was before she retired and even better probably.”

Serena won’t be too worried. She has won seven of the pair’s eight meetings.

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