- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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I am finally back on the court hitting tennis balls again! It is such a relief to be out there enjoying every second of it.
It's been five months since Maria Yuryevna Sharapova last raised a racket with malice in her heart, more than six months since she was ranked No. 1 in the world and seemed poised to dominate women's tennis.
There has been little news of the long, cool Russian's ailing right shoulder, until Tuesday morning, when the news blackout ended with a detailed post on her blog at www.mariasharapova.com.
After two tears were discovered in her rotator cuff in the summer, Sharapova missed her first Grand Slam event, the U.S. Open, after playing in 23 straight. She rested the shoulder for 10 weeks, but ultimately a 22-minute arthroscopic procedure on Oct. 15 solved the problem. Six weeks later, she was throwing a football, and two weeks after that, Sharapova was back on the court feeling no pain.
"I know this entire process has made me stronger and more hungry," the 21-year-old wrote in her blog. "I miss competing so much. I am trying to do everything possible to be ready for Australia, but I have promised my doctors, coach and family that I will not rush back."
Perhaps more than anyone in professional tennis, Sharapova is looking for a fresh start in 2009. Just when it will begin remains open to question. Sharapova has already pulled out of an exhibition in Hong Kong scheduled to start Wednesday. She's not sure whether she'll be in the field at the Australian Open, where she is the defending champion.
In March at Indian Wells, Sharapova met the media with a sharp new haircut, riding a 14-match winning streak. When a journalist, perhaps leading the witness, mentioned that it was the 20th anniversary of Steffi Graf's Golden Slam (four majors plus the Olympics), Sharapova had the good grace to laugh.
"Let's not get carried away now," Sharapova said. "I mean, 14-0 has nothing to do with a Golden Slam and winning the Olympics in one year."
At the time, though, it had seemed possible.
"Anything is possible," she said. "I think it is. I don't know if I'm ready for that yet, if I'm capable of doing that, to be honest. But yeah, it can happen, right?"
This seems to be as good a prognosis for 2009 as any. After a season in which four different women won the four major titles and none of them wound up as the No. 1 player -- Jelena Jankovic, of course, did -- anything is possible.
Sharapova may not be fit enough to make a deep run Down Under, but it says here she'll emerge from the new year with a major title, either Wimbledon or the U.S. Open.
Here are a handful of other players desperately hoping to make a fresh start in 2009:
Nicole Vaidisova: Aside from injury, it is difficult to fathom a steeper fall in such a short time.
Not long ago, the 6-foot-1 Vaidisova was seen as an emerging Sharapova; she had all the weapons, the big serve and forehand. Turns out, she was missing the most valuable weapon of all: the mind.
Vaidisova, who had a 37-14 record in 2007 and was a semifinalist at Melbourne and quarterfinalist at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, always seemed distracted on the court and went a disastrous 19-19 last season. There were rumors that she had married her ATP boyfriend, Radek Stepanek, and her game deteriorated after she rallied to reach the quarters at Wimbledon. Vaidisova won exactly one match after August, and her WTA ranking fell from No. 12 to No. 41.
There's nowhere for the 19-year-old to go but up. Or is there?
Anna Chakvetadze: She struggled, understandably, after six men broke into her Moscow home and tied her up along with her parents and stole $300,000 of cash and jewelry.
The 21-year-old saw her WTA ranking fall from No. 6 to No. 18 and lost four of her final five matches in 2008, including a first-round defeat at the hands of fellow Russian Ekaterina Makarova at the U.S. Open.
Expect a rebound for Chakvetadze.
Daniela Hantuchova: Like Chakvetadze, Hantuchova fell out of the top 10, dropping from No. 9 to No. 21. It's the first time she has been outside the top 20 in four years.
Hantuchova made a splash in Melbourne, where she reached the semifinals (and lost to Ana Ivanovic), but a respiratory illness and a stress fracture of her right heel sent her spiraling downward. She skipped the French Open and won only a single match in her last two majors.
At 25 and already the author of a top-10 comeback, it might be too late for Hantuchova to stage another run to the inner circle.
Roger Federer: We'll find out whether Federer's sour season of 2008 was the result of mononucleosis -- or advancing age.
The 13-time Grand Slam champion will be looking to tie Pete Sampras' all-time record of 14 at the Australian Open. The 27-year-old will do so as the No. 2-ranked player behind Rafael Nadal.
After the embarrassment of losing to Novak Djokovic in the Aussie semifinals and to Nadal at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, Federer played like a champion in winning the U.S. Open. Illness-free and fresh off his December training session in Dubai, Federer could not just tie Sampras' record in 2009, but also break it.
Richard Gasquet: He's still only 22 years old, and he has the loveliest of backhands, but Gasquet is in his eighth season as a professional and is still looking for his first Grand Slam final.
The Frenchman fell from No. 8 to No. 25, and knee and elbow problems have reduced his game to merely generic. Gasquet played well at Wimbledon, losing a terrific round-of-16 match to Andy Murray, but fell to Tommy Haas in the first round of the U.S. Open.
And in 2009? Probably a marginal improvement to a ranking in the mid-teens.
Lleyton Hewitt: Like Federer, the feisty Australian is 27 years old and on the downside of his career.
The youngest male to reach No. 1 (20 years, 8 months in 2001) was leveled by a severe hip injury last year. His ranking fell to a not-to-be-believed No. 67.
That labral tear was repaired by surgery after the Olympics, and Hewitt's goal is to play in more than the single Grand Slam he competed in last year. That, at least, seems quite possible.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
After an auspicious start in 2008, injuries derailed the rest of Maria Sharapova's season. Now healthy and hungry, she is among a handful of stars seeking a new beginning.