Sharapova to defend Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo

Maria Sharapova returns to a happy hunting ground to defend the star-studded Pan Pacific Open women’s tennis tournament starting in Japan on Sunday.

Twenty six out of the world’s top 30 players will take part in the two-million-dollar hard court tournament, with only Kim Clijsters, Serena and Venus Williams and Justine Henin missing.

Sharapova won her first WTA singles and doubles titles at the 2003 Japan Open in Tokyo, and earned her first professional title on the ITF Circuit series in Gunma, north of the capital, a year earlier.

The Russian has won four of her 22 WTA titles in Tokyo, including the Japan Open twice and the Pan Pacific Open in 2005 and 2009.

The former world number one has slipped to 15th and will start her campaign from the first round against wild card entrant Kimiko Date Krumm of Japan, the winner in 1995.

The 2009 US Open finalist Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark will lead the upper echelon, which includes fourth seed Samantha Stosur of Australia, sixth seed Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland and eighth seed Victoria Azarenka of Belarus.

It also includes 2008 champion Dinara Safina of Russia, whose ranking went down to 59th in the world.

Wozniacki and other top seven seeds received first-round byes. The top seeded Dane will take on a qualifier in the second round.

The bottom half includes Sharapova, second seed Vera Zvonareva of Russia, third seed Jankovic, Beijing Olympic gold medallist Elena Dementieva of Russia, and French Open champion Francesca Schiavone of Italy.

Dementieva, also the Sydney Olympic silver medallist, won her career biggest title then by winning the 2006 event here.

Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic and Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria, who caused a sensation by reaching the semi-finals at Wimbledon, will make their Japan debuts.