Early test for Venus, Sharapova

The top seeds won't get a chance to play each other until late next week, but it already has been quite a contest to see who can outdo each other in the early rounds. For those keeping score at home, Maria Sharapova is easily "winning" the Australian Open so far: She didn't drop a game in her first two matches and spent just an hour and 22 minutes on court.

Serena Williams isn't far behind: She has dropped only two games and been on court for 2 hours, 9 minutes. Not bad, considering that includes treatment for an ankle injury as well as an 18-minute game in her second match.

Victoria Azarenka made a slow start by those standards, dropping six games and spending 2 hours, 22 minutes on court. She is trending in the right direction, however; her last match was a 6-0, 6-1 win lasting just 55 minutes.

Before Sharapova, a double double-bagel hadn't been done at the Australian Open since 1985. But the Russian isn't giving herself any medals for it.

"It's not really the statistic I want to be known for," she said. "I want to be known for winning Grand Slam titles, not that I won two matches 6-0, 6-0."

Her next match, a meeting with seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams on Friday night, isn't much of a reward either. It will be the most anticipated third-round contest in the women's draw and in the past could easily have been a Grand Slam final.

Meeting so early is a sign of the challenges the two have faced the past few years, but that they are meeting at all is a sign of their perseverance.

The 25-year-old Sharapova has returned to the summit, as her No. 2 seed suggests. Her well-chronicled comeback from shoulder surgery in 2008 culminated in victory at the French Open last year, completing a career Slam. Williams, 32, is trying to slowly re-establish herself after returning last spring from being diagnosed with autoimmune disorder Sjogren's Syndrome. After rushing her return to try to qualify for the Olympics -- she and sister Serena won the doubles gold -- she has played sparingly but posted solid results, coming into this tournament ranked No. 26.

The two have perhaps the most active outside interests of any players on tour, and either could easily have walked away when presented with such daunting hurdles to continuing their tennis careers. But both chose to fight back.

"Tennis and my career drive everything -- myself, my business, everything I do -- and you realize that," Sharapova has said. "You miss it and you want to be out there. From the hour you're in the locker room, and you're putting your dress on, to the 15 minutes before the match when you're pumping yourself up to play in front of 20,000 people. I missed it.

"If I was a mentally weak individual, I think I wouldn't be here today. I'd be on some island, with a nice, cold pina colada and a nice, cold towel by the pool. But I love being here."

For Williams, it wasn't just the thrill of competition on the tour -- she was also competing with her condition.

"I have this challenge ahead of me to see how far I can get, and see, you know, how much back I can get," she said early in her comeback. "So that challenge is important for me to face and to have the courage to face it."

A big part of the reason for coming back was, of course, big matches like this one. This is no ordinary third-round match.

"There are certainly no secrets coming into that matchup," Sharapova said. "We've played against each other many times. You know, despite the fact that she might not be seeded high or didn't play for a little bit, she's still a very experienced player and a tremendous athlete."

Their overall record is 4-3 Williams, but respective absences mean the two have played only once since 2009, a straight-sets win for Sharapova in Rome last May. Sharapova will be the favorite here, having maintained a consistently high level of late, while Williams' serve has been a bit of a question mark under pressure. More than anything, it is difficult even for Williams herself to predict how she will be feeling on any given day. But as far as keeping score in the first couple of matches goes, she isn't lagging too far behind the top seeds, having dropped only seven games.

There will be another retro matchup between two former No. 1s on Friday. Fellow Serbs Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic will meet in the afternoon. Both say their formerly prickly relationship has mellowed, but both also will be intensely keen to win this important test in their campaigns to reclaim former glories.

Ivanovic, 25, leads their career meetings 8-3 and is seeded nine spots higher than No. 22 Jankovic, who will turn 28 next month. Ivanovic struggled after winning the French Open in 2008 but has worked her way through serving problems and injuries to slowly move within striking distance of the top 10. Her glamour has earned her plenty in endorsements, but she says she continues to compete because she believes she is capable of achieving more.

Jankovic, who struggled with injuries last year, also is attempting to make another run to the top 10. It's different the second time around, she says, because veteran players know how long and steep the road really is.

"If I want to come back to the top again and to be one of the top players, it's going to be different feeling because I've been there already," she said last week in Sydney. "I know what it takes to be up there, how hard I have to work."

But like the others, the pursuit of those memorable moments continues to drive her. "To be honest, it's tough practicing every day. Of course I have my days when I'm really tired and I don't want to hit balls," she said. "But I love competing. That's something I enjoy very much. The satisfaction you get from winning matches and when all that hard work from practicing pays off, and the crowd, you know, they cheer you on and all these things, I really enjoy that."

These pairs of old rivals have been through rises and falls and plenty of twists and turns of fate, but for a few hours Friday, their paths will intersect again, and perhaps help remind them why they've made the journey.