|Russia's Maria Sharapova returns the ball against Serena Williams of the U.S. during her Stanford Classic tennis match in Stanford, California, July 29, 2011. (REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach)
Don't ask Maria Sharapova to gaze into her crystal ball and tell you who will win the Rogers Cup in Toronto.
Not going to happen.
Not when the top 25 players in the world, plus the higher-ranked Williams sisters, will be gathering at Rexall Centre next week to compete in Canada's biggest tennis tournament. The WTA tour is too deep, too wide open almost, for any kind of rash statements.
"It's tough to predict a tournament," fifth-ranked Sharapova said Thursday on a conference call. "I think that's the reason we all go there and play. If everyone knew they wouldn't do well, they wouldn't even show up. If everyone knew they were going to win it, nobody else would show up at the tournament.
"As far as the competition, there's a tremendous (number) of players that are tough and playing well. And the women's field is very deep. It makes for a great tournament."
Adding to the depth of the talent on the WTA circuit is the return of Serena and Venus Williams, both of whom were sidelined much of the past year because of injuries.
Neither is ranked in the top 25: Venus is 34th and Serena is 79th. But Serena is coming off a win at the Bank of the West Classic in California, where her quarterfinal victim was Sharapova, and seems to be rounding into form. Because of their low ranking, there could be some intrigue as either sister could face a top- 10 player in the early rounds.
"It also (makes for) great matchups, early surprise matches," Sharapova said. "It's interesting in a way. Of course we would like the bigger matches to be in the later stages of the tournament, but that's the way it is."
Sharapova, a finalist at Wimbledon in June and one of the favourites to go deep into the Toronto tourney, knows from experience what it's like to take an extended break from tennis, then try to return to form and move up the world rankings. Life definitely is easier at the top.
The world No. 1 in 2005, Sharapova developed shoulder troubles and had surgery in late 2008, which forced her to take a 10-month break. In 2011, though, she has been rounding into form.
"I was in the same position a few years ago when I was out of the game for a long period of time," Sharapova said. "You've got to get yourself back to one of the top positions to get seeded and get a bye. That's kind of part of the sport and I think we all understand that.
"I'm very happy with the progress I've made this year. It's a big step. I feel like gradually I've improved this year."
As one of the top seeds at the Rogers Cup, Sharapova will get a bye into the second round: The top eight don't play in the first round, which begins Monday.
The official draw will be held today at the Rexall Centre, shortly after the draw for the men's tournament in Montreal, which for the first time will be held the same week.
Sharapova, though, has good reason to be optimistic about her chances of winning next week. Two years ago, the previous time the Rogers Cup was held in Toronto, she made it to the final before losing to Elena Dementieva.
"I'm certainly excited to be coming back to Toronto," she said. "It's one of my favourite cities, actually."