Joy and strain for Sharapova

PARIS - Maria Sharapova has just turned 20 but already the aches and pains of top-bracket tennis are taking their toll.

PARIS - Maria Sharapova has just turned 20 but already the aches and pains of top-bracket tennis are taking their toll.

The Russian glamour girl and the highest-earning woman in sport looked to have the world at her feet when she triumphed at the US Open last year, her second grand slam title after Wimbledon 2004.

But after being blasted off the court in straight sets by Serena Williams in the final of the Australian Open in January, Sharapova's fortunes have taken a nosedive, culminating in a bad shoulder injury that sidelined her for two months.

She returned to play the Istanbul Cup last week only to lose to lowly ranked French youngster Aravane Rezai and few expect she will turn the tide at the French Open on clay, which is her least favourite surface.

But Sharapova said yesterday after opening the tournament with a win over Emilie Loit of France that she had come to accept that she would just have to live with the pain.

"My shoulder is still not where I want it to be," she said.

"It's still not perfect. At times I still feel it, but I just love competing and whatever it takes for me to be here.

"And as long as the doctors give me an okay, as long as I can play through the little aches and pains that I get from time to time, then I'm okay and I'm willing to do it. I take the good and the bad."

But Sharapova said the forced time off earlier this year had provided her with one silver lining in that she had enjoyed some spare time.

The Russian has been hell-bent on success in tennis ever since she and father Yuri left home for Florida's tennis academies when she was just nine years old and her dedication to the sport is well-documented.

"It was tough in one way, great in another, because I got to spend some time at home," she said of her time out.

"I've gotten to appreciate what my life has brought me, has given me.

"I don't think in my career I've had a more serious injury, but on the other hand I don't think I've had that much time to actually appreciate the things that life has brought me.

"The friends around me, my house. I've just gotten to take it all in. Whereas before I couldn't."

Sharapova has a comfortable enough second-round tie ahead of her against veteran American Jill Craybas, but it gets tougher as it moves along with home heroine Amelie Mauresmo a potential opponent in the last eight. - Sapa-AFP