WUHAN, China - World number three Maria Sharapova returns from injury at next week's Wuhan Open as she starts her build-up to the WTA Finals season finale.
Sharapova last played at Wimbledon, where she lost in the semi-finals to Serena Williams for the 17th time in succession. The Russian subsequently pulled out of a WTA event in Toronto and the Cincinnati Masters hoping to be ready for the US Open, but a persistent leg injury kept her out of that one too.
The five-time Grand Slam champion only accepted a wild card entry into the Wuhan Open last week, and told reporters Saturday in Wuhan it is a "consolation prize for not playing the US Open".
"Obviously I took a large amount of time to get back to a level where I can come to a tournament, which is very important. I wouldn't be here if I wasn't healthy and ready to compete," she added.
Sharapova is among a star-studded line-up for the $2.4 million hard court event, which was only established last year on the back of the success of China's two-time Grand Slam winner Li Na, who was born and raised in Wuhan.
Twenty-eight-year-old Sharapova has already booked her place in next month's WTA Championships in Singapore - which sees the top eight players on tour fight for the final prize of the year.
But the field remains open for all but the world's top three, and competition at the Wuhan Open is certain to be intense with 18 of the top 20 players attending. Points are close amongst many of the players, and a strong performance from down the ranks could shake up the line up for Singapore.
"You can never underestimate an opponent, whether seeded or not. We all know that anyone who is in the draw has been doing really well to be part of this field. There is not an easy match," Sharapova said of the line up at Wuhan, where she is hoping to improve on her performance last year, which saw her crash out in the third round against Swiss qualifier Timea Bacsinszky.
Potential shake up
Williams is sitting out the tournament and US Open winner Flavia Pennetta - whose surprise grand slam victory saw her shoot up the rankings from 26 to 7 - withdrew at the last minute with a foot injury.
Pennetta announced her retirement at the US Open final, and could now only have one tournament left before she exits tennis.
But the Italian's appearance at the WTA Finals could be in jeopardy if any of the players who sit just below her in the rankings - Germany's Angelique Kerber, Czech Karolina Pliskova or Spain's Carla Suarez Navarro and Garbine Muguruza - make it to the quarter-finals or beyond at Wuhan. The points they would earn could push Pennetta out of the top eight.
Romanian Simona Halep enters as the tournament's top seed, and double Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova is the third seed. The Czech was diagnosed with glandular fever this year but has been given the medical OK to compete.
Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki is seeded fourth ahead of Muguruza and sixth seed Kerber. Suarez Navarro and Pliskova are seventh and eighth.
All seeded players have a first round bye.
Retired Li will return to her hometown Wuhan for the second instalment of the tournament and to open Sunday a new 15,000-capacity stadium, its mammoth capacity highlighting the rapid growth of tennis in China.
Li retired from tennis last September on the eve of the inaugural Wuhan Open - one of three WTA events in China added to the calendar last year - eight months after winning her second Grand Slam title at the Australian Open.
She gave birth to a daughter Alisa in June.
The tournament qualifiers began Friday and the first round begins Sunday leading to the climax on October 3.