Maria Sharapova has a grueling road to a second Australian Open championship, as she will have to get through a number of former champions and highly-ranked players, but Sharapova is still the player to beat.
Sharapova, currently ranked No. 4 in the world, decisively beat No. 30 Angelique Kerber in the third round and will now head to the round of 16.
Sharapova now faces a draw that could include matches with No. 14 Sabine Lisicki, No. 12 Serena Williams, No. 2 Petra Kvitova and one of No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, No. 3 Victoria Azarenka or No. 11 Kim Clijsters in the finals.
I think it's fair to say that a draw can't get much tougher than that on the ladies' side, so Sharapova obviously has her work cut out for her.
She has battled a lot of injuries over the past couple years, and there was talk that she had an ankle ailment entering the Aussie Open, but her impeccable movement suggests otherwise.
Serving has been an issue for Sharapova, since she needed shoulder surgery a couple years ago, but it has been very consistent in the early going of this tournament as she has served with both power and accuracy. Also, she double faulted just once in her domination of Kerber.
On top of that, Sharapova has been crushing returns of service and using the entire court, even utilizing drop shots against Kerber.
Sharapova is a three-time Grand Slam winner so she has played some great tennis over the course of her career, but this may be the best she has looked in quite some time.
Since Sharapova had so much success at such a young age, it's easy to forget that she is only 24. With that in mind, Sharapova is just now entering her athletic prime, so that probably explains why she is holding up physically and why her game is maturing so much.
One good thing about Sharapova's draw is that the players she has tended to struggle against have been the smaller and craftier ones like the retired Justine Henin. All of Maria's upcoming opponents are power players like herself, including Lisicki, Williams and Kvitova.
Williams is the two-time defending Australian Open champion and Kvitova shockingly beat Sharapova in last year's Wimbledon final, so there is no doubt that Sharapova will have to conquer some demons along the way.
The fact of the matter is, though, that Sharapova may be playing the best tennis of her career. On top of that, she is unconditionally committed to winning championships and she is more battle-tested than anyone in the tournament, save for Serena.
Since Williams is the defending champion most would probably say that the road to a title goes through her, but I would argue that Sharapova is better and more fit, and because of that, she will be raising the trophy next week.