SHARAPOVA'S SHOULDER OR LACK OF AGGRESSIVENESS
Back to Sharapova, who unexpectedly came back this week and then couldn't serve out the first set in her loss to Azarenka. Yes, her right shoulder injury has largely contributed to her troubles this year. Of course her serve has been the most affected stroke, but I can't buy into this train of thought that's been running around some analysts minds – Joel Drucker, Peter Bodo and Rennae Stubbs – that it's her primary problem. No, to me, the most disturbing thing that I've seen in her major losses this year is her inability to read and effectively return her opponents first serves, followed by up-and-down confidence in her forehand. Certainly, Sharapova will be much better off when (and if) her injury is healed because she will be able to cut loose more on her first serves, produce mores service winners and receive more of those weak returns she likes to munch on. She'll also cut down on her double faults, because she'll feel more at ease with when she's rotating. But even serving at 75 percent of her capacity, she's not easily broken.
If you look at her three major losses at the Slams to elite players (Serena, Ana Ivanovic and Venus), you'll see just how much trouble she has getting her foes' first serves back in play. She wasn't very good returning their second serves, either. It's her failure to adjust her positions while returning, and not to learn what her opponent's tendencies are that really hurts her. She's simply not getting enough decent balls back in play, which both Williams sisters and Justine Henin are able to do. Plus, because she's not that fast, she cannot scrape her way back into enough points a la the three aforementioned, the two Serbians and Kuznetsova. If you can get Sharapova running hard from the first ball and don't push your ground strokes, you stand a good chance of winning points.
I haven't mentioned the Agnieszka Radwanska loss at the US Open because little mattered there other than Sharapova not keeping a ball in play with any stroke. But that match was a clear indication that's it not just serving woes that ail her, it's a serious lack of confidence in her ground game. She needs a few weeks of uninterrupted play to get her groove back and needs to learn to contend with the pain in her shoulder. What was interesting in Drucker's piece for ESPN was Sharapova's former coach, Robert Lansdorp, claimed that he was the person responsible for telling Yuri to have her abbreviate her service motion post Wimbledon, when it was actually Sharapova's touring coach, Michael Joyce (a Lansdorp student himself), who made the call.
Here's an unpublished comment by Stubbs that she made when I was talking to her for a column that I wrote for foxsports.com last week. I asked what might occur if Sharapova shoulder never really healed and if she had to develop other parts of her game (like a standard volley) to compensate for the loss of the weapon. "That would be very interesting. She doesn't move well. Wow. That's going to be tough." Here's the link for the fox piece: http://msn.foxsports.com/tennis/story/7296390
BTW: Drucker and I discussed Sharapova on a taping of "Crosscourt" yesterday from the misty hills of Berkeley, Calif. (What happened to Indian summer this year?) The show will appears on Tennisone.com sometime prior to the year-end championships in Madrid