The Uncertain Future of Maria Sharapova

In 2004, when 17-year-old Maria Sharapova upset Serena Williams in the final at Wimbledon, women’s tennis had one of those moments of high drama that comes along one or two times a generation. Sharapova was the 15th seed, which made the upset especially dramatic. She was also tall, blonde and skilled at speaking English, which made her an instant international star.

Much is expected of an international sports star, and Sharapova proved to be as hard a worker off the court as she was trained to be on the court. As a child, she left her mother behind in Siberia and moved with her father to Florida, where, every day, she was greeted by Nick Bollettieri and a basket of 1,000 tennis balls. Yuri Sharapova was known in those days for his volatility, and young Maria soon became adept at self-discipline and professional detachment. Her Wimbledon championship proved how solidly she and her father had worked toward their considerable goals, and Sharapova slid into a huge spotlight with relative ease.

The endorsements poured in, and, despite being thrust into sudden superstardom and all the negativity that entails, the tall young Russian used her confidence and her self-deprecating wit to handle matters in a way that made her seem older than her years.

Sharapova didn’t win another big title again until the end of 2006, but that victory, the U.S. Open championship, was so dramatic, she again captured world-wide attention. By this time, she had become a tennis fashion icon, and she showed up at the U.S. Open  night matches wearing a rhinestone-studded black dress that would have been over-the-top for anyone else, but which appropriately defined the glamorous Russian as a new kind of champion. Playing near-perfectly, she swept the field, defeating Justine Henin decisively (6-0 in the third set) in the final.

The last major Sharapova won was the 2008 Australian Open, in which she defeated Ana Ivanovic in the final. By this time, Sharapova had also won 16 other titles, including the 2004 WTA tour championships, and had spent some time ranked as the world #1. Whether letting out her trademark scream when she smacked the ball, bantering with the sports media, or charmingly persuading us to buy a digital camera, she was as close to being a household name as any female athlete could be.

Her critics said that Sharapova’s game was too limited—that she relied too much on her serve and her stinging, finely angled ground strokes. Both her first and second serve were superior, and—while her style of tennis certainly had its limitations—she executed it well enough to take control of big matches.

In 2006, Sharapova had a problem with her shoulder, but recovered. In 2008, her shoulder bothered her again, and though tests were run, her doctor failed to notice that she had a torn rotator cuff. Sharapova played with this significant injury for three months, and then got the bad news from another doctor. She went into a long and intense rehab, and when she tried to hit serves again, her pain was such that she had to start rehab all over. The rehab required her to be out for ten months.

When she returned to the tour, the big-serving Russian began to double-fault repeatedly. She changed her service motion, changed it back, changed it again, and continued to struggle with the shot that had helped her win three major titles. She was upset in the first round of the 2010 Australian Open, and didn’t get past the round of 16 in the three other majors.

Some say Sharapova, who now holds 22 tour titles, will never recover that form again. In sports, no matter how good you are, any sort of vulnerability can cause others to pass you by. Other players on the tour are now big threats on hard courts, where Sharapova once ruled, and opponents do not fear her the way they once did. It is not unreasonable to conclude that the Russian’s best days are behind her.

However, there is another way of looking at this story, and that is through the eyes of the little girl who lived without her mother for years so that she could hit 1,000 tennis balls a day in a foreign country. Anyone who has ever seen the look in Sharapova’s eyes when she wins—or when she loses—knows that, whatever her flaws, being a quitter isn’t one of them.

Look for big things in 2011 from Maria Sharapova, I recommend watching her.

Ana Ivanovic: Back on Track for 2011

Given Ana Ivanovic could barely string two wins together after claiming her first major title at Roland Garros in 2008, the last few months of 2010 were positively golden. Since the beginning of the Cincinnati event in August Ivanovic went 21-6, picking up trophies in Linz and Bali and finishing the year at World No. 17.

On the surface that might not seem very impressive. She didn’t move much beyond her 2009 year-end ranking of No. 22, and had sat in the top spot just two years ago. But given the deep chasm that her ranking had plummeted into by mid 2010, her current position is very much a triumph.

Falling to No. 65 on July 12 marked the lowest point of her entire career. How could a fresh-faced Grand Slam champion with such determination and promise have fallen so heavily? Sure, there had been the odd bright patch. An Indian Wells finals appearance here, a trip to the Rome semifinals there. But mostly, the time from July 2008 to July 2010 was characterised by early losses, an erratic ball toss, tears, injuries and a revolving door of coaches and trainers.

It was such a contrast to that day in Paris in June 2008. Ivanovic had just dismantled Dinara Safina in the French Open final, winning in straight sets thanks to a flurry of technically-perfect forehand winners. Holding aloft the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen as the newly ranked No. 1, tennis had apparently found a fabulous successor to the throne recently vacated by Justine Henin.

But instead of gaining in confidence following this breakthrough, Ivanovic faltered. Bombing early that year at Wimbledon and the US Open as the top seed, the Serbian seemed a shadow of the player with the devastating baseline game and in-your-face confidence. She blamed her poor results on a thumb injury. But really, it had to be mostly mental. Over-analysing and second-guessing herself, thinking too much instead of just swinging freely.

Poor form ensued in 2009. She failed to win a title or progress past the fourth round of a major. New coach Heinz Gunthardt arrived in early 2010 to reign in his highly-strung, emotional protégé and bring her back to the basics of hitting a tennis ball. Although she claimed her game was improving under his tutelage, the results still weren’t coming. But then came Cincinnati.

Ana rediscovered her mojo in the mid-west, recovering from a dire position against Victoria Azarenka in the first round to grind out a three-set win and going on to reach the semifinals before injury forced her withdrawal. Despite the setback she returned with gusto in New York, straight-setting three opponents before falling in the fourth round to Clijsters. It was her best showing at a major in more than a year.

Then came the inspiring run to the Linz title, her first tournament victory in two years and, coincidentally, where she had won her last title. This was quickly followed by her triumph at the Tournament of Champions in Bali, catapulting her back inside the Top 20 and filling her with that previously elusive confidence for 2011.

So how will Ana fare in 2011? Australia has always been a happy stomping ground for her, and in Melbourne she has the family connection and the warm support of local fans. Clay is arguably her most productive surface, and she’s proven she can win big on the dirt. The first six months of the season look promising, and form permitting, Ivanovic could conceivably re-enter the Top 10 given the lack of points she will be defending.

This would be a sensational outcome, because tennis needs Ivanovic. She’s glamorous, popular, marketable, articulate, talented, and above all, a champion.

It’s a shame to see great players fall. But it gives us a heart-warming story when they return. Think of Andre Agassi falling out of the Top 100 in 1997 yet recovering to complete a career slam and rank No. 1 in 1999, or Steffi Graf being decimated by injury late in her career before rebounding to win the French Open, even Serena Williams succumbing to depression then defying everyone’s expectations to win the 2007 Australian Open. All make inspiring stories.

Ana could be that story in 2011. She just can’t afford to think about it too much !