SHARAPOVA DEFENDS HER CROWN Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova overpowered American Mashona Washington yesterday to claim back-to-back Japan Open titles.

The top seeded Russian cruised to a 6-0 6-1 victory over Washington in a match that lasted just 55 minutes at Tokyo's packed Ariake Colosseum.

The world number eight used her booming serve and solid groundstrokes to dominate her unseeded opponent.

"Everything came together and I served very well, " Sharapova said.

The previous time the two players met, Washington defeated Sharapova 6-3 2-6 6-2 in the second round of August's Pilot Pen tournament at New Haven.

But the Grand Slam victor heeded that lesson and felt she had the measure of her rival this time around.

"I knew I had to dictate the pace this time and was able to do that a lot better than the last time we played, " she said.

SMICER GETS A BOOST Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez has been handed a welcome boost after mid"elder Vladimir Smicer revealed that his make-or-break knee operation looks like being a success.

The Czech Republic international, has yet to play this season, but he could be back in action by January to bolster the An"eld ranks.

The 31-year-old has been with Liverpool since 1999 and his contract is due to expire at the end of the current season.

With Xabi Alonso, Antonio Nunez and deep-lying forward Luis Garcia having been recruited from the Spanish league, Smicer is all too aware of the need to make an impression on Benitez, should there be a chance of prolonging his Liverpool career.

AUSTRALIA ON COURSE Australia remained on course for a comprehensive victory against India despite losing three wickets on the morning of day four of the "rst test in Bangalore yesterday.

First-innings hero Michael Clarke, Damien Martyn and Adam Gilchrist were all dismissed, but Australia still reached 204 for seven by lunch.

However India's attack failed to capitalise on the pressure applied by Singh, and a competent partnership from Shane Warne and Gilchrist steered the tourists past the 200 mark, before Gilchrist was caught by Chopra off Anil Kumble for 26 in the "nal over before lunch.

With a con"dent-looking Warne not out on 26, alongside Jason Gillespie at the crease, Australia were looking to give their total a "nal boost before allowing India back in to bat.

GLAZER'S UNITED CONTACT CONFIRMED Manchester United fans may be in for an anxious wait before learning whether Malcolm Glazer intends to launch a takeover bid for the Old Trafford club.

Con"rmation that a representative of the American business tycoon made contact with a counterpart for major United shareholders John Magnier and JP McManus sparked fear among Red Devils fans that an of"cial effort to buy the club was imminent.

WATSON POSTPONES SURGERY Just three days after electing to postpone hip surgery, Tom Watson has decided to delay surgery on his right shoulder as well.

Watson has noti"ed the Champions Tour of his decision, but he will not return for the "nal two events of the year . . . the Champions Tour SBC Championship and the Charles Schwab Cup Championship.

"My original plan was to have both my hip and shoulder treatments about the same time, " Watson said.

"If I was going to be down for one, it made sense to be down for both at about the same time."

After meeting with Dr Joe McCarthy in Boston on Tuesday, Watson, the 2003 Champions Tour Player of the Year, elected to delay his hip surgery inde"nitely.

Watson was told that the surgery would not guarantee he would be free of pain.

EVERTON RELIEVED AFTER CAHILL TESTS Everton have expressed their relief after tests showed that mid"elder Tim Cahill has not suffered a recurrence of an old knee injury.

It had been feared that Cahill would face a lengthy spell on the sidelines, as a rash tackle by Jamie Redknapp during last week's game against Tottenham did damage to the right knee on which the Australian required major surgery during his Millwall days.

However Cahill could be back in action as soon as next weekend, when Everton face Southampton.

Meanwhile, the club have con"rmed that the match against Southampton will be preceded by a minute silence in memory of Ken Bigley, the the 62-year-old Liverpudlian was an Everton fan.