| LOS ANGELES
LOS ANGELES Maria Sharapova rose to number two in the rankings on Monday after her impressive title run at the BNP Paribas Open but says she is motivated much more by grand slam glory than the prospect of regaining the top spot.
"Number one is a great number," the elegant Russian laughed after demolishing eighth-seeded Dane Caroline Wozniacki 6-2 6-2 in Sunday's final of the elite WTA event at Indian Wells to land her 28th title on the circuit.
"The more consistent you are and the better results that you have and the more wins that you're able to get, the better chances you have of getting that spot.
"Is it something that all of us want? Absolutely. It's a 'no-brainer' question. But I think at this point in my career, titles and grand slams are just a bigger priority."
Four-times grand slam Sharapova is well accustomed to the allure of being viewed as the game's best player, having become the fifth youngest woman to reach the top of the world rankings, at the age of 18 in 2005.
For her to regain that top spot, however, she will have to overhaul American Serena Williams who, when fully fit and on her game, is virtually unbeatable in women's tennis.
"Serena was very dominant last year," Sharapova said of Williams, who won Wimbledon, Olympic gold and the U.S. Open as she piled up seven titles in a dazzling 2012 campaign. "She played tremendous, confident tennis.
"She's also very strong and very athletic, so you need to be consistent with her. She's also a great frontrunner. You're down a little bit and she goes with it. She's a confidence player."
When it comes to head-to-heads between Sharapova and Williams, it is virtually no-contest. The Russian has won only twice in their 13 career meetings with her most recent victory dating back nine years to the Tour Championship in Los Angeles.
Sharapova has been beaten in straight sets by Williams in their last six matches.
In the eyes of many, the battle for top spot in the women's game could come down to a seemingly never-ending game of musical chairs between Williams, Sharapova and third-ranked Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, the reigning Australian Open champion.
"Serena is the most dangerous and she is the favorite at this point when she goes into tournaments because she has the most weapons," former world number one Tracy Austin told Reuters.
"She's an extraordinary athlete and I think because she has had some time off in her career, for extended periods where she was either injured or just away from the game, she still has the hunger."
Asked whether anyone could get close to Williams when the American was in prime form, Austin replied: "Azarenka gave her a good show at the U.S. Open last year, losing 6-2 2-6 7-5 in the final.
"Then we thought Serena was on her game at the Australian Open in January and she lost to Sloane Stephens (in the quarter-finals). So it's certainly possible."
Austin, who at 16 became the youngest U.S. Open champion in 1979 before claiming a second U.S. crown in 1981, regards Azarenka and Sharapova as the likeliest challengers to Williams for top spot.
"Victoria has really come through," said Austin. "She got mentally tougher, has more belief, got speedier about the court, got better movement and now she has the two grand slams.
"She is the most likely challenger right now. And then you have Maria. She is just a great story because she's already won so much and yet the motivation never seems to dissipate.
"She just seems to love the challenge of trying to improve as a tennis player and I just admire her so much for that because she clearly has won enough, she clearly has enough money."
Austin said she had been hugely impressed by the Russian's fighting spirit after having surgery on her right shoulder in October 2008 before dropping out of the top 100 in the rankings by May of the following year.
"After the surgery, I am sure she was concerned whether she was ever going to get that big weapon of a serve back again, as most of us were.
"But she just kept on fighting and working and believing in herself, won the French Open last year and got back to number one for a short time. It's a really spectacular story."
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Frank Pingue)