When Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon in 2004, it was a very big deal. Though she wasn’t as young as Hingis was when she made her major breakthrough, she was still young enough to cause quite a stir in the tennis world. Since then, Sharapova has become a sex symbol and a product, and has had all manner of attributes projected onto her by members of the tennis press, who tend to assess her every shortcoming as the only one she has ever had. In reality, Sharapova is no different from other good players—she has her strengths and her weaknesses.
A lot has happened since the summer of 2004. Sharapova won the Sony Ericsson Championships that November, giving her even more momentum, but then failed to win a major the next year. She capped a successful 2006, however, with a brilliant run—and win—at the U.S. Open. 2007 should have been a great year for her, but a shoulder injury kept her off the courts for a long time, and when she did return, it was with a weak shoulder and equally weakened confidence. To make matters worse, she also had to fight a recurring hamstring injury. When Agnieszka Radwanska dismissed her from the U.S. Open, people began predicting her demise.
Sharapova is not the fastest mover on the court, and she would probably like to spend her entire career away from the net. The same could be said of Chris Evert and Lindsay Davenport, and they managed quite well, thank you. When Sharapova-worshipper and ESPN commentator Mary Joe Fernandez goes on and on about the Russian player’s long list of talents, she usually includes “work ethic” as one of them. On that point, Fernandez and I agree completely. I don’t kjnow if anyone on the tour works harder than Sharapova. When she realized how relatively slow she was, she began doing constant foot drills. When she hurt her shoulder, she modified her serve. When she realized that players like Justine Henin were not going to go away, she began going to the net more, and doing it rather well. She ended the 2007 season as the loser in a glorious 3 1/2 hour match against Henin. She had barely prepared for it, and by the third set, she was almost too tired to stand up, but she stayed to the end.
That match turned heads. If Sharapova, with minimal preparation, could keep Henin on the court for 3 ½ hours, maybe she was ready to return to the highest rung of women’s tennis. It won’t be easy for her. As a result of her shoulder injury, Sharapova now has bursitis, and she has to have constant preventive treatment for it. Even with this treatment, it is bound to flare up now and then. She is still not one of the tour’s better movers, but her volleying has improved, and—with her new service motion—she is once again hitting the kinds of serves that are either aces or very hard to return successfully. Prior to being injujred, Sharapova had the best second serve on the tour, and I predict that that will come back, too.
Can she win a Slam in 2008? I think she can, and I’m pretty sure she thinks she can. And given the importance of belief in tennis, there is a good chance that Maria Sharapova may strain her bad shoulder holding up a large trophy before the year is over.