At the Net: Maria closing in on No. 1?

Maria Sharapova hasn't held the No. 1 ranking since May 2008, but the tall Russian is quickly closing in on current top-ranked star Victoria Azarenka.

Both players are competing at the clay-court Madrid Open this week, where Azarenka is the top seed and Sharapova is No. 2.

"Shaza" is only 340 rankings points (8,600-8,260) behind "Vika," who ascended to No. 1 for the first time in her career earlier this year after capturing her first-ever Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, where Maria finished as the runner-up to the Belarusian star.

Sharapova was also the runner-up (to Petra Kvitova) at Wimbledon last year and is still seeking her first major title since capturing her lone Aussie Open championship in 2008.

The three-time Grand Slam champ is off to a solid 24-4 start this year, including a big straight-set victory over Azarenka in the final at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart two weeks ago. It marked Maria's first victory over the Belarusian slugger this season after she dropped her first two encounters against the Minsk native in 2012, in the Aussie Open final and a title bout at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., which is one of the biggest events on the WTA calendar outside the majors.

Azarenka still leads their all-time head-to-head series, 5-4, with no less than five of their clashes coming in finals. The Belarusian had been unbeaten in their previous four finales before Sharapova finally prevailed in Stuttgart, Germany, on clay, a surface where the Russian is 2-0 lifetime versus Vika.

That could bode well for the Sharapova at the upcoming French Open, which will commence in less than three weeks in Paris.

If I can say something negative about these women, they are 1-and-2, in no particular order, when it comes to that uncontrollable shrieking nonsense on court. Monica Seles has nothing on these two.

Back to the tennis.

The now-25-year-old Sharapova was No. 1 (by default) back in 2008, following the sudden retirement of then-No. 1 Justine Henin. But Sharapova then was derailed by a career-threatening shoulder injury.

The 6-foot-2 bomber, who first climbed to No. 1 in the summer of 2005, was plagued by a chronic right shoulder problem in 2007, and the issue resurfaced again mightily in '08. She underwent surgery in October of that year and was sidelined for 10 months, or an eternity in professional tennis.

And she's been battlin' back ever since.

Following five straight finishes inside the year-end Top 10, Maria finished outside the exclusive list in 2009 and 2010 before finally showing signs of a complete comeback by coming in at No. 4 to close out 2011, a year in which she reached her first Wimbledon final since capturing the event as a spry 17-year- old back in 2004 and appeared in a French Open semifinal, her first final-four appearance at Roland Garros in four years.

The Florida resident appeared in four finals all told last year, including satisfying titles in Rome and Cincinnati, and has appeared in four finals already this season, including runner-up finishes at three of the six biggest events on the WTA schedule -- the Aussie Open, Indian Wells and the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami.

I'd say she's progressing just fine.

The top-earning female athlete in the world may or may not be the favorite at the 2012 French Open ... but she might get my vote right now.

Sharapova still needs a French Open title to complete the coveted career Grand Slam. Only nine women have accomplished the feat, including the likes of Margaret Court, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and Serena Williams.