Maria a top threat Down Under
Sharapova wants to add Australian Open crown to her collection
Kyodo via Reuters
Maria Sharapova is tougher mentally, and also a more confident and mature player as she aims for her third Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, writes Tracy Austin of MSNBC.com.
By Tracy Austin
Updated: 6 minutes ago
Coming off a career-best season in which she won five titles, Maria Sharapova's best days are still ahead of her, and I believe we could start seeing evidence of that by her winning her first Australian Open women's singles title.
A career on the rise
Earlier this month the 19-year-old Russian added two more major endorsements (Gatorade and Tropicana), pushing her estimated annual income from endorsements, appearance fees, prize money and other sources to what is believed to be about $30 million.
All this income and all that Sharapova does off the court doesn't seem to affect her keen desire to win. From the time Sharapova turned pro she has always wanted to win titles. Big reasons for her success are her hunger, desire, and motivation.
Since the end of last season she has had some time to work on her strength and conditioning, and I think she is right where she wants to be for 2007. Sharapova, who turned pro in April of 2001, is a more mature and confident player. She's also gotten tougher mentally on the court.
She's looking to make it back-to-back majors as she won last year's U.S. Open, the second Grand Slam title of her career, the other one coming at Wimbledon in 2004.
World No. 1 Justine Henin-Hardenne is not in Melbourne skipping the season's first major for personal reasons. That has made Sharapova, who has advanced to the Australian Open semifinals the last two years, the top seed.
The draw went well for Sharapova as the highest-ranked player in her quarter is No. 8 Patty Schnyder. She faces a potential semifinal against either Kim Clijsters or Martina Hingis, and if the bottom of the draw plays to form, Amelie Mauresmo will be waiting in the final.
I'd say along with Sharapova, Clijsters and Mauresmo have to be considered the top contenders to leave Melbourne with the women's singles title. But Sharapova's in hot pursuit of a third major title, and keeping her from claiming it won't be easy.
She's the defending Australian Open champion, and it was by winning in Melbourne a year ago that she finally shed the label of being "the most talented player never to have won a major."
After going 11 years without bagging a Grand Slam title, the 27-year-old also won Wimbledon last year. After her breakthrough in 2006, Mauresmo is now a much more confident player.
That confidence translates not so much to what Mauresmo is doing with her forehand or backhand. It translates to her on-the-court decisions, and I see her being a little bit more aggressive at the right times, and not folding in big spots, but instead getting stronger on crucial points.
Mentally she is a different player, and that's where matches are won and lost. Those still doubting whether she can reap the full potential of her talent could well be in for more surprises from the Frenchwoman in 2007.
Seeded second, Mauresmo should not be challenged until at least the quarters, where she could face either Elena Dementieva or Nicole Vaidisova. The top threats to stop her in the semis appear to be Nadia Petrova and Svetlana Kuznetsova.
But I would not bank on any of these players sending Mauresmo down to defeat. Rather than getting upset, it's far more likely that Mauresmo will march her way into another Melbourne final.
It's a farewell tour of the majors for the 23-year-old Belgian, who plans on getting married after Wimbledon, and retiring by the end of this year. Knowing that this is her last year on the WTA Tour, she seems very motivated.
Part of the reason for her deciding to retire has been the wear and tear on her body that comes from playing on the tour. She's had her share of injuries including a sprained ankle that forced her to retire against Amelie Mauresmo in last year's Australian Open semifinals.
The fourth-seeded Clijsters has never won this major, but has made the Melbourne semifinals four times and the final once (2004).
She sees the finish line to an excellent but relatively short career, and with that being the case she can go all out and put all she has into her tennis.
The wrist injury Clijsters suffered in Montreal last year is healed, and she looked good in the tour championships at the end of 2006, in Hong Kong where she posted a convincing win over Maria Sharapova earlier this year, and in Sydney where she won a warmup tournament to the Australian Open in the second week of January.
Her first real challenge should not be until at least the quarterfinals where she could meet sixth-seeded Martina Hingis. Since Hingis began her comeback last year she and Clijsters have played three times with the Belgian winning all three matches.
The 26-year-old Swiss Miss loves playing Down Under. Hingis won five Grand Slam singles titles before quitting tennis in 2002 due to chronic foot, heel and ankle injuries. Three of those titles came in Melbourne.
She started her comeback last year in Australia at the Gold Coast tournament, and went on to reach the quarters of the Australian Open.
She loves the Rebound Ace surface in Melbourne, and even has that surface on her practice court at home. Plus, she benefits greatly from her craftiness, her ability to change the pace on the ball, and her knack to drop-shot an opponent at will.
She has a lot of versatility to her game, and that gives many of her opponents difficulty. Playing Hingis is like playing a chess match on the court. Opponents are constantly seeing different shots from her.
While she can't overlook any early-round opponents, the sixth-seeded Hingis has to have her sights set on a potential semifinal showdown with fourth-seeded Kim Clijsters.
Among Serena's seven Grand Slam titles are two Australian Open crowns (2003, and 2005). She made it to the third round last year in Melbourne, but played little tennis in 2006 as a knee injury limited her to just four tournaments.
Serena is convinced she is hitting the ball harder than ever, and she is such a dangerous floater it's incredible. With her great serve and talent, and her fighting spirit, the rust on her game may not be that great a factor -- at least against inferior opponents.
The draw slotted her in above the 27th-seed Mara Santangelo, and the two will meet in the first round. Their only previous match was at Wimbledon in 2005 when Serena won in three sets.
In the bottom of the draw, Serena could go against fifth-seeded Nadia Petrova in the third round, 11th-seeded Jelena Jankovic in the round-of-16, and third-seeded Svetlana Kuznetsova in the quarters.
If she makes the semis, second-seeded Amelie Mauresmo could be waiting.
Serena has been to the top of the mountain, so don't expect her to have doubts about climbing back to the summit. It may be a commonly held opinion that Serena is not the player she once was, but you can bet she's out to prove a lot of people wrong.
The 11th-seed is a darkhorse to win the women's singles title. A young Serb, Jankovic is a fighter, and it's amazing how far she has come since losing 10 straight matches early in 2006.
Much like Sharapova, Jankovic has a great game, hits hard, and is very focused. She plays every point like her life is on the line. She starts the point and just never lets up.
She served notice on how tough an out she'll likely be in Melbourne by running off a thrilling nine-match winning streak earlier this year during which he scored wins over Amelie Mauresmo, Martina Hingis and Nicole Vaidisova.
If you take her results since the middle of last May after she had put an end to her losing streak, Jankovic, who enters the Australian Open ranked 12th, would be ranked fifth in the world.
Lindsay, Venus sit it out
Among those missing from this year's Australian Open are two prominent U.S. players: Lindsay Davenport, who is pregnant, and Venus Williams, who is injured.
Some up-and-coming players to keep an eye on include 10th-seeded Czech Nicole Vaidisova, who is coming off a solid year in 2006, 13th-seeded Ana Ivanovic, who has the biggest forehand in the game since Steffi Graf, and ninth-seeded Dinara Safina, who won the Gold Coast tournament earlier this month, and who I feel is coming into her own.
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