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Sharapova takes big step in return

by Jim Armstrong

The Associated Press

Maria Sharapova made progress in her comeback Saturday even though her first title after a 10-month layoff was cut short by injury to her opponent.

Former No. 1-ranked Sharapova won her first tournament since undergoing surgery on her right shoulder a year ago when Jelena Jankovic was forced to retire in the first set of the Toray Pan Pacific final.

Sharapova was leading 5-2 when the seventh-seeded Jankovic took a timeout to have her right arm examined by the trainer.

The Serbian player returned to the court and lost the first two points of the eighth game before retiring.

“It’s disappointing,” Sharapova said. “It’s toward the end of the year and there are a lot of injuries so I wish Jelena a speedy recovery.”

It was Sharapova’s first title since Amelia Island in April 2008, and she said her performance over the entire tournament in Tokyo was a boost to her confidence.

“This tournament was a really good challenge for me,” Sharapova said. “Having to play six matches in six days, I knew it was going to be a good test of what I can do.”

Jankovic got off to a strong start, breaking Sharapova’s serve in the first game and taking a 2-0 lead. But Sharapova rallied and took control by winning four straight games.

“She started off so strong,” Sharapova said. “But it’s my second final of the year so I wanted to play strong. I played well all week so I felt I could give her a good match.”

Ai falls in farewell

Kyodo News

Ai Sugiyama’s 17-year career ended in defeat in Saturday’s doubles final at the Toray Pan Pacific Open.

Sugiyama and Slovakian partner Daniela Hantuchova were beaten 6-4, 6-2 by Alisa Kleybanova of Russia and Italian Francesca Schiavone.

The 34-year-old from Chigasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, decided to retire last month amid a frustrating slide in form that has seen her plummet down the world rankings.

“Many, many people came to cheer me on and a lot of players gave me warm messages. I don’t think many players can retire in an atmosphere like this,” Sugiyama said. “I’ve received so many flowers for my retirement. It made me think I’m a bride. I hope I can be one someday.”

Sugiyama made a record 62 consecutive Grand Slam appearances, the last of which was in September at the U.S. Open, where she made a first-round exit for the first time since debuting at the event in 1994.

“I’m filled with satisfaction. It’s a perfect ending,” Sugiyama said. “My desire to improve was the driving force in my career. I hope young players will aim high and continue to try. I would like to support them.”

Sugiyama turned professional at 17 and won the first of her six singles titles at the 1997 Japan Open. She won 38 doubles titles including Grand Slam victories at the U.S. Open (2000), the French Open and Wimbledon (both 2003).