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Steve Flink: The Importance of Sharapova

5/25/2009 5:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Over the course of the first two days at the French Open, the time was ripe for most of the favorites to get their bearings on the slow red clay of Roland Garros. Among the men, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray all recorded straight set, opening round victories. As for the women, top seeded Dinara Safina did not drop a single game in her first round match, while No. 8 seed Ana Ivanovic managed to advance in straight sets, and No. 3 seed Venus Williams held back Bethanie Mattek-Sands in three sets. In both the men’s and women’s divisions, form was largely holding up. 

But playing almost underneath the radar was a woman who once resided at No. 1 in the world, a player who has won every Grand Slam championship in her storied career with the exception of Roland Garros, and a competitor who has the capacity in the weeks and months ahead to give the women’s game a much needed boost at the best possible time. I am referring, of course, to Maria Sharapova, a 22-year-old who just might be the most charismatic female tennis player on the planet. Sharapova, back at last after being absent for the better part of the last year with a shoulder injury, made a nice comeback on Monday to defeat Anastasiya Yakimova 3-6, 6-1, 6-2.

I watched portions of that match on television, and Sharapova looked remarkably good after being away from the game for so long. Her serve was shaky early on--- she had five double faults in her first three service games---but it improved decidedly over the last two sets. Moreover, her ground strokes were first rate. Her two-hander down the line was deceptive and penetrating, and her inside-out forehand was as precise and explosive as ever.                

That first round win was good news not only for Sharapova, but in a larger sense it was a positive development for the entire sport. Sharapova had commenced her 2008 season majestically, capturing the Australian Open without the loss of a set across the fortnight, completing that mission with gusto by cutting down Justine Henin, Jelena Jankovic and Ivanovic with immense power, superb ball control, and serving of the highest caliber. Playing that brand of tennis, Sharapova seemed destined to celebrate perhaps the greatest year of her career. To be sure, she had been magnificent in winning her first major at 17, toppling Serena Williams on the fabled Centre Court at Wimbledon. She had been even more masterful in some ways when she took her second Grand Slam tournament title at the 2006 U.S. Open, taking apart Henin in a straight set final on that auspicious occasion.                

But I had the feeling when I watched her secure that Australian Open crown last year that Sharapova was about to take her game and her talent to an entirely new level. All of the elements--- self assurance, maturity, a sounder forehand than ever before, match playing acumen--- seemed to be in place. I fully expected her to win at least one more major in 2008, and perhaps set the stage for another big year in 2009. But across the spring, it was increasingly apparent that Sharapova was not sustaining her brilliant early season form. She lost for the second time in three years to Safina at Roland Garros. Having squandered a 5-1 final set lead in 2006 to Safina at the French Open, Sharapova suffered an eerily similar misfortune at Roland Garros a year ago, falling 6-7 (6), 7-6 (5), 6-2 against the same player despite leading 5-2 in the second set, reaching match point at 5-3, and building a 5-2 second set tie-break lead.                

Nevertheless, she had played some excellent tennis in that loss to Safina, and remained one of the big favorites for Wimbledon. It was there on the grass at the All England Club that it was painfully obvious that something was terribly wrong with Sharapova’s game.  She lost in the second round to Alla Kudryavtseva 6-2, 6-4. It was her earliest departure at a Grand Slam event since 2003. Kudryavtseva was ranked No. 154 in the world, but Sharapova was not anywhere near the top of her game; she had virtually no bite on her first serve, and her ground game lacked any real severity. It was among the most listless performance she has ever given on a big stage, and there was a good reason for her uncommon mediocrity. Her nagging right shoulder--- which had disrupted her 2006 schedule and forced her to withdraw from five tournaments in 2007--- acted up in a substantial way in the summer of 2008. She withdrew before a third round match at Montreal last August against Ai Sugiyama, and could not play again for the rest of the year.                

Sharapova returned at Indian Wells earlier this year to play only in the doubles, but did not compete again in singles until last week. In an encouraging display, she made it to the quarterfinals in Warsaw before losing to Alona Bondarenko. Now she has won a match at Roland Garros, and will face No. 11 seed Nadia Petrova in the second round. No matter what happens in that match, as long as she plays reasonably well, Sharapova has taken something of value away from Roland Garros. She is moving in the right direction, and her shoulder--- at least for the time being—seems to be holding up.                

My hope is that Sharapova can gradually pick up confidence, keep winning her share of matches, and move back as soon as possible among the elite in her profession. She could make some noise at Wimbledon, although it would be asking too much of her to go beyond the quarterfinals there. But the hope here is that Sharapova will have reassembled her game and be fully reinvigorated by the U.S. Open. By then, she could be a serious contender for the crown.                

Pause for a moment and consider the state of the women’s game. The Williams sisters remain formidable and essential figures and Serena has been the dominant big tournament player at the majors (outside of Roland Garros) over the past year. The Serbians Ivanovic and Jankovic have been terrific for tennis, but have thus far not made their full case at the majors. Safina has made it to No. 1 in the world without capturing a major; perhaps she will make amends for that this year in Paris. Other leading players like 2008 Olympic gold medalist Elena Dementieva have made significant contributions. But no one has stepped up to fill the considerable void left by Henin when she departed in the spring of 2008. There are simply too many players who have not managed to become authentic and enduring champions.
The fact remains that Sharapova is one of those rare players who transcends tennis. She is also highly accomplished with her excellent record at the majors. For innumerable reasons, women’s tennis needs Maria Sharapova back in the forefront of the game. If Sharapova keeps progressing steadily, if she can withstand a few more setbacks in the process of restoring herself as a front line player, if her shoulder fully cooperates, then all of us who follow the game stand to gain immeasurably from her revival.

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