INTERVIEW-Tennis-Tour is no grind for resurgent Sharapova
(Reuters) - You will not find Maria Sharapova moaning about crowded schedules after a year in which the Russian has returned to within sight of the summit of women's tennis.
The world number two has some sympathy for the top male players who have made rumblings about possible strike action over what they see as a too punishing calendar but after having her career knocked sideways by injury she is clearly happy to be globe-trotting again and winning tournaments.
"I really missed doing what I've done since I was four years old and I really felt that there is so much more in me that I could bring to the court," the 24-year-old told Reuters in Taipei where she will play an exhibition match against fellow Russian and world No.4 Vera Zvonareva on Thursday.
"(The schedule) is so much better than it was years ago," she added, when asked about the demands on the serving shoulder that needed major surgery in 2008 and kept her out of the game for 10 months, in which time she dropped to 126 in the world.
"We finish two or three weeks before the men do. You can say that's nothing but it's huge in our sport, it gives us more time to take a breather whereas before after the season you could maybe take a week off. Now you can take two weeks off and not feel guilty about it."
Sharapova, who returned to the top 10 in March after reaching the final in Miami, was a semi-finalist at the French Open and runner-up at Wimbledon and recently won her 24th career title in Cincinnati.
While she did suffer bouts of illness early in the season she has crucially remained injury free this year -- a major factor in her rise up the rankings.
Now she is looking forward with renewed optimism.
"That's what drives me, that's the reason why today I find myself in that position and a position also to even do better," she said. "I'd love to win Wimbledon again, that's always a goal of mine, the French Open is one that I haven't won but I feel like with every year I compete I play better at the French Open.
"I have many goals and that's what's drives me to keep getting better."
With no dominant force in the women's game this year, the path does seem open for Sharapova to add to her three grand slam titles, although the depth of the field makes it tricky.
Three of the four grand slam titles went to first-timers this year and Sharapova dismissed any suggestion that it was evidence of a lack of top quality.
"A few years ago you would come into a tournament in the first few rounds and people were saying 'well women's tennis you're winning first rounds 6-0 6-1,' and now it's kind of like 'well why are the first few matches so tough'," she said.
While Sharapova probably does not want the year to end, Zvonareva was less enthused about the calendar.
She said the current WTA schedule was "quite tight" and said players would like to have more flexibility and choice over which tournaments they could play in.
"With this kind of schedule we have to play every single weekend and sometimes you feel good but sometimes you don't feel good but you still push yourself hard and at the end of the day you could get sick or get injured," she told Reuters.
She said players want more discussion on the issue, though there were different views with some players wanting to play more and some less.
"We have to find some solution where we can find the right balance, because right now it's a little bit too busy for us. We travel too much, but on the other hand we get a lot of opportunities to play, so we have to think about it and we're working on it and we're trying to find the right balance."
Next stop on the Tour for Sharapova and Zvonareva is the Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo starting on Sept 25.