Slumping star hopes to find game on the green
Maria Sharapova has yet to win a title in 2007. She's also coming off the best French Open of her career, which gives her hope heading into Wimbledon.
Not long ago, Maria Sharapova was living the teen dream. In 2004, at age 17, she won her first Grand Slam, at Wimbledon; the following year, she held the world No. 1 ranking for seven weeks. But it took nine frustrating tries before she won another major, the 2006 U.S. Open. And while she was easily the best player on tour during the second half of last year (with wins at San Diego, Zurich and Linz), she has struggled in 2007. A shoulder injury bruised her serve, which in turn scarred her psyche. And the deepest field in recent memory has made every draw that much more daunting.
Looking at the season as a whole, there are several reasons why Sharapova won't win her second Wimbledon title. However, recent results -- including a three-set loss in the final at Birmingham on Sunday -- indicate just how at home Sharapova feels on grass.
1. Serena Slams
Sharapova looked poised for a strong 2007. Instead, she became Serena Williams' springboard back into the top 10. After dispatching four top-20 players at the Australian Open, Williams reached the final against Sharapova, who suffered a major crisis of confidence. In an onslaught worthy of Serena circa 2002, Williams won 6-1, 6-2 in just 63 minutes. Two months later in Miami, in the fourth round of the Sony Ericsson Open, it was déjà vu: Serena again thrashed Maria, this time 6-1, 6-1 in 58 minutes. The lesson for Sharapova: Go for winners early instead of drawing Williams into long rallies. "Against her, you need to be the first person who strikes a good ball," Sharapova says. "Once she gets up, she just seems to steamroll."
2. Cold Shoulder
Sharapova's psyche wasn't all that was damaged in Miami. By the end of her match against Serena, her right shoulder was screaming for a break. So she withdrew from tourneys in Charleston, S.C., and Rome and took eight weeks off to recover. After rest didn't ease the pain, an MRI showed severe tendinitis. (Sharapova calls it the worst injury of her career.) To speed recovery, she had a cortisone injection in mid-April that left her unable to pick up a racket for nearly two weeks. Then she struggled on clay in Istanbul, where she lost to world No. 59 Aravane Rezai. At the French Open, where Sharapova was eventually dismantled in the semis by Ana Ivanovic 6-2, 6-1, the injury and her general dislike of clay led her to announce that she felt "like a cow on ice."
3. Lousy Service
Sharapova's serve is usually one of her best weapons. In her victory over Justine Henin in last year's U.S. Open final, she won 74 percent of her first service points and 50 percent of her second. But this year, that weapon has let her down. She's hitting double faults in bunches and having trouble with her toss. Against Serena at the Australian, Sharapova won 67 percent of her first service points and just 26 percent of her second. In their Miami match, those numbers fell to 50 percent and 25 percent. And in her loss at Roland Garros, her serve was equally abysmal. Sharapova isn't looking for excuses: "Even without a serve, I'm good enough to win many matches." But good enough isn't good enough in this crowd.
"The train is already in London." That's what Sharapova said after losing to Ivanovic at the French. Her girlhood dream came true at Wimbledon in 2004, and she clearly is most at home on grass, which perfectly suits her long legs and power game. Besides, she's feeling a little overdue at the All England Club, having lost in the semifinals each of the past two years (to Venus Williams in '05 and Amelie Mauresmo in '06). Maybe her favorite tourney is just what the doctor ordered. "I can't say how happy I am this time of year," Sharapova admits. "I'm always thinking, I hope I'm healthy when Wimbledon comes around, because it's a very special place in my heart." Healthy is nice. Victorious is better.
5. One Fine Day
So how can Sharapova regain the No. 1 ranking that Henin took over in mid-March? "I have to win matches," she says. Well, yeah, that helps. So does the never-say-die attitude she showed against clay-court specialist Patty Schnyder in the fourth round of the French. Sharapova forced a third set and fought off two match points to prevail 3-6, 6-4, 9-7, then reached the semifinals at Roland Garros for the first time. But Henin won the tournament, further widening the gap between No. 1 and No. 2. A win at Wimbledon is all Sharapova needs to close it.
Lindsay Berra is a staff writer at ESPN The Magazine.
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