New hairdo, stellar results, rosy outlook thus far for Sharapova
And then there was one. At 14-0 Maria Sharapova remains the lone undefeated player in 2008. A wily veteran at just 20, the Russian appears to be more focused, passionate and hungry than ever.
On the court so far in 2008, there is only one perfect player left in all of professional tennis. That would be Sharapova, who has won the Australian Open, two Fed Cup matches in Israel and, despite a mysterious virus, the Doha tournament in late February. She is 14-0 and has dropped only two sets; 2 ½ months into the season she has yet to lose.
Tennis journalist Matt Cronin reminded Sharapova that this is the 20th anniversary of Steffi Graf's Golden Slam, the unconscious 1988 season during which she won all four Grand Slams and the Olympic gold medal.
"Let's not get carried away now," Sharapova said, convulsing in giggles. "I mean, 14-0 has nothing to do with a Golden Slam and winning the Olympics in one year."
Still, it is technically 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?"The reality in today's game of global women's tennis is that a true, single-year Grand Slam is unlikely. Justine Henin won two of the four majors last year and Serena Williams was the last to win three of four, in 2002, despite sitting out the Australian Open.
Sharapova, based on her 2008 form and history, could also go three for four -- the French Open, where the red clay places a premium on movement, remains a stretch -- which passes for dominance these days. She is seeded only fourth here at Indian Wells, but don't be fooled. Sharapova, who is ranked fifth in the world, endured a relatively wretched 2007 season that has left her ranked behind Henin, Ana Ivanovic, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Jelena Jankovic, but she emerged from the Australian Open as the this year's leading light.
With no visible effects of the shoulder injury that prevented her from serving and volleying effectively for most of 2007, Sharapova blitzed the field in Melbourne. She destroyed new mother Lindsay Davenport in the second round, then hammered Henin in the quarters, Jankovic in the semis and Ivanovic in the final. She won all six sets against the players ranked Nos. 1, 4 and 3 in the world.
"That's the best I ever saw her play," tennis analyst Mary Carillo said on Thursday. "Never took her foot off the pedal. She had a great narrow yet deep focus that allowed her to play exactly the kind of tennis that suits her best.
"I've always said that in women's tennis, the best server wins. That's it. For years it was Venus, then her sister [Serena]. When Lindsay won, it was because she was serving well. Maria is clearly healthy and she's serving well. In women's tennis, it's that simple."
When Sharapova won her first Grand Slam, Wimbledon in 2004, she was just three months past her 17th birthday. It's hard to believe, but she is still only 20 years old -- the age of a typical college junior. This makes her the same age as Ivanovic and three years younger than Jankovic, the two rising Serbians.
"The interesting thing is I'm almost 21 years old and I've already had ups and downs in my career," Sharapova said. "And in a way, I'm fortunate to have the downs, because some of the girls that are coming up that are 20 or 21 or 22 are going up, up, up right now. And, you know, I think everybody's realistic that they're going to have some down moments in their careers and they're going to have injuries.
"I was fortunate that I was able to have this little slump and have the experience of it and know that I was able to come back. In a way, I feel like I'm a veteran."
"All the Grand Slams and a couple of other [tournaments], I was playing with painkillers before every single match," she said. "Even though during the match that might be taking care of the pain, you know in the back of your mind its not 100 percent. And you have to do something about it.
"And a lot of it had to do with the fact that I couldn't serve and I couldn't hit a backhand volley. So I couldn't work on my volleys, I couldn't work on my serve. And just hitting cross-courts for four hours a day isn't going to do anything. When you're injured and you can't work on things, it's basically a waste of time."
Davenport was impressed with Sharapova in Australia."Maria looked spectacular in Melbourne," she said. "Extremely high level, very confident, injury-free."
But at least in Davenport's mind, the No. 1-ranked Henin remains the top women's player.
"I believe Justine is a better athlete," Davenport said. "If she can feel good mentally and play well, I think she's got the advantage there."
Steve Simon, the Pacific Life Open tournament director, sees a new hunger.
"She's got a passion, she's got a focus right now," Simon said. "The one thing Maria has always brought to the table is competitiveness. She competes as hard or harder as anyone I've seen.
"She was struggling. She was struggling with her shoulder. And at that level you can't have that challenge. It made her play a little angry."
Tired, at the moment, is more like it. Sharapova's webmaster told her the other day that she has already logged 48,000 air miles. In fact, her only major setback this year is that she couldn't get credit for the miles she flew on Qatar Airways to and from Dubai.
"I've just been fortunate that I've been able to stay healthy this whole ride," Sharapova said. "Everything's held up really well. But this year's very young, unfortunately.
"It gives me more confidence, knowing that if I ever do have a serious injury again, if I have some doubts or some frustrating losses, I know that I can come back and play better tennis than before. Because I did it."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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