Old lady Sharapova to repeat teen win?
WIMBLEDON, England -- Make way for some new names. Veterans have dominated Grand Slams in the women's game for the past couple of years, but things are set to change this week. Maria Sharapova, who at 24 was the youngest semifinalist at the French Open a month ago, is the oldest still standing in the ladies' singles at Wimbledon.
"How does it feel to be the old lady in the draw?" she was asked. "I don't know if that's a compliment or not," Sharapova replied ruefully. "I think a few years don't really make that much of a difference."
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Sharapova is only 3 years older than 21-year-olds Sabine Lisicki, Petra Kvitova and Victoria Azarenka, but in experience, the three-time Grand Slam champ is light-years ahead. Kvitova is the only one of the other three who has reached a Grand Slam semifinal before, unexpectedly reaching the final four at this event a year ago. But if Sharapova can win this tournament, as most expect her to, she will still be the youngest champion since she won it for the first time as a 17-year-old in 2004.
"I think if I achieved big things when I was a little bit older, not 17, maybe I wouldn't be seen as more of a veteran," Sharapova said. "I'd still be considered young. But I don't regret for a second that I had a lot of success when I was young, because I feel like I got to learn so much more than players at my age."
The learning has come from setbacks as well as successes. Sharapova has not been to a Grand Slam semifinal since winning the Australian Open in 2008 partly because of well-documented shoulder problems.
But she will not have a monopoly on the comeback trail in the semifinals when she faces Lisicki, the latest in a line of German sensations this year. Different body part, similar story. Sharapova first felt her shoulder issue at the U.S. Open in 2006, according to her agent, Max Eisenbud. She pulled out of three events with shoulder problems in 2007 and finally injured it badly at Indian Wells in 2008. Initially misdiagnosed, she finally required surgery that fall and missed almost nine months. When she returned, her once-strong serve was producing flurries of double faults. Reliability has only slowly returned after much tinkering with the stroke.
"I still feel like I can get a few more miles per hour, but I think that will come with time," she said.
Tweaking her elbow at Indian Wells in 2010 was another setback, and only in the past couple of months has everything started to come together again.
Despite the progress, Sharapova's serve let her down badly in the French Open semifinals, and she will need to avoid a similar lapse Thursday. That's because Lisicki's injury woes have centered on her ankle, leaving her booming delivery untouched. After going down at the 2009 U.S. Open and having to be carried off in a wheelchair, the German hurt her ankle again at Indian Wells -- the same events at which Sharapova experienced her injury milestones. Like Sharapova, Lisicki's injury was not correctly identified, delaying her return.
"I really literally had no muscles in my left calf after seven weeks on crutches. So I had to start to, you know, learn how to walk again," she said after upsetting French Open winner Li Na in the second round. "So it's been a very, very long road back and tough road back. But, you know, that makes those moments right now sweeter."
Lisicki wept openly after saving two match points to defeat Li and must have felt that she turned a corner. She had held match points during that fateful match at the 2009 U.S. Open and again at the French Open last month against Vera Zvonareva before succumbing to cramps and having to be carried off on a stretcher. She was diagnosed with a gluten allergy shortly after.
Now she is in her first Grand Slam semifinal, the first wild card to make it this far into the Wimbledon draw since Jie Zheng in 2008, and she's looking to cap her comeback by reaching her first major final. In addition to one of the best serves in the women's game, Lisicki also has a big forehand in the tradition of Germany's biggest tennis legend, Steffi Graf, and she showed off a little touch with all her drop shots and lobs in beating Marion Bartoli on Monday.
If one name in the final will be on some kind of comeback, the other will be making a breakthrough. Despite winning top-level events on the WTA tour this year, neither Kvitova nor Azarenka has made a Grand Slam final, and the two biggest, young power hitters will now face off to see who will be the first.
Kvitova's presence in the semifinals last year was a surprise, but it's less so this year. The Czech has made her big lefty game felt on the circuit this season, winning three events and defeating four top-10 players. But she is still less well-known than Azarenka, who is in the process of reinventing herself from a hotheaded young banger to a focused and fiery competitor.
Earlier this year, Azarenka even contemplated retirement but turned herself around to win Miami for the second time. She has consistently been winning or reaching finals in events that she has not had to quit with injury. "I take my game and approach to the matches completely different since March," she said. "Just happy, you know, always on the court. I'm looking forward to every challenges I take, I try to be disciplined to what I'm working hard for, and I'm just enjoying myself much more on the court."
The change was prompted by "a long talk with my grandmother," Azarenka said. "I say I don't want to do something that I'm not enjoying. She says, 'Then don't do it. You have to be happy.' She was telling me those stories, how hard she was working. [I] was like, Well, you just have to shut up, you know, and stop complaining because you have a pretty damn good life."
The semifinalists are a young group for women's tennis these days, but they're not without perspective.
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.
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