Commentary

Sharapova, Venus looking to rebound after protracted time off

The Italian Open will witness the returns of Maria Sharapova and Venus Williams. But are they ready to tackle a stacked field?

Originally Published: May 11, 2008
By Ravi Ubha | Special to ESPN.com

Tournament: Italian Open
Surface: Clay
Draw: 64
Prize money: $1.34 million
Top seeds: Ana Ivanovic, Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Jelena Jankovic

One out, two in at the Italian Open.

Justine Henin, seemingly mentally drained, bailed following an early loss to eventual champion Dinara Safina last week at the German Open, while Maria Sharapova and Venus Williams return.

Organizers must be hoping for some semblance of normality: Henin, Serena Williams, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Jelena Jankovic all failed to reach the semifinals in Berlin. Ivanovic struggled to make the last four, where she was eliminated by the gutsy Elena Dementieva.

First Quarter: It's looking light
Six qualifiers and two wildcards find themselves in this quarter, so Ivanovic doesn't have much reason to complain. The Serb gets a qualifier in her opener, and if she can navigate past the third round, a spot in the semis is well within grasp. In that third round, she could face Safina or Victoria Azarenka. They squared off in the German Open semis and do battle at the first hurdle here.

Apart from Ivanovic, the next highest seed is No. 6 Anna Chakvetadze. A second-round loss to Azarenka in Germany exacerbated her woes.

Prediction: Ivanovic

Second Quarter: Tricky for Serena
Williams, her 17-match winning streak halted by Safina last week, needs to be on her toes from the outset. Alona Bondarenko, who thumped Kuznetsova en route to the quarterfinals in Berlin, probably awaits in the second round, and Hungarian teen Agnes Szavay looms in the third. Szavay has reached the quarters in her last three tournaments and led Ivanovic by a set and break before faltering in the German Open.

Kuznetsova made it to at least the semifinals in her three events prior to exiting in the third round at the German Open. An easy looking section should see her back in the last eight.

Prediction: Kuznetsova

Third Quarter: Venus's return
Much intrigue surrounded Venus Williams when she pulled out of a few clay-court tournaments last month, without citing an injury. Her agent, Carlos Fleming, would later say Williams was undergoing routine medical tests to make sure everything was in order prior to a hectic summer.

In her first appearance in more than a month, Williams could face another pro on the comeback trail, Aussie Samantha Stosur, in the second round. A former top 30 in singles and doubles No. 1, Stosur contests her first top-tier tournament since last year's U.S. Open, out with a viral illness.

Williams will have a difficult time reaching the quarterfinals -- Vera Zvonareva, barring an upset, figures to be her third-round opponent. Zvonareva is 31-7 and only missed out on the quarterfinals at one tournament in 2008, retiring in the opening round of the Australian Open.

Jankovic, the defending champion, could have her hands full in the second round. A potential foe is home favorite Flavia Pennetta, who claimed two clay-court titles on the Latin American swing.

Prediction: Zvonareva

Fourth Quarter: Sharapova's reply
There aren't many more gritty competitors than Sharapova, so don't expect the photo shoot brouhaha to affect her on-court performance. The most dominant player on the women's circuit the first three months of the season, Sharapova meets a dangerous floater in the second round -- either Gisela Dulko or Dominika Cibulkova, her victim in last month's Amelia Island final.

In the third round, mom Sybille Bammer, who tested Ivanovic in Berlin, or 17-year-olds Caroline Wozniacki and slightly-less-tricky Tamira Paszek, may feature. Assuming she overcomes the early obstacles, a spot in the semis looks likely for Sharapova.

Prediction: Sharapova

Semifinals
Ivanovic leads Kuznetsova 5-1 in their head-to-heads, so has the mental edge, even if both encounters on clay last year went the distance. Sharapova leads Zvonareva 5-3, with all eight matches relatively tight. They split the last two, and this would be their first battle on clay in four years.

Prediction: Sharapova, Ivanovic to advance

Final
Sharapova's win over Ivanovic in the Australian Open final looked comfortable, but take away a failed Ivanovic drop shot when she led 5-4, 30-0 in the first set and the result might have been different. Ivanovic routed Sharapova in their lone clay-court duel, too, limiting her opponent to just three games in the 2007 French Open semifinals.

Prediction: Ivanovic

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.