Sharapova dangling at career crossroads
Posted by James Martin, TENNIS.com
Maria Sharapova has always walked a fine line. On the one hand, she's as driven as they come on the court. Her game might not be the most aesthetically (and aurally) pleasing, but there's never been any mistaking her desire to win once the first ball is in play. In this regard, Sharapova is much like Monica Seles in her prime, someone who gave the impression that she'd run over her own mother to win a match. Yet, despite this intensity, Sharapova's hardly had tunnel vision. Off-court ambitions, from fashion to photo shoots, have always figured prominently in her life.
Since turning pro in 2001, Sharapova's done a decent job of balancing her interests. It's hard, after all, to give someone too much stick when they've won three majors and reached the final of another. But as she attempts to return from shoulder surgery, you get the feeling that the 24-year-old Russian is at a career crossroads.
Last week, in an effort to see how her shoulder would respond in a match, Sharapova played doubles at Indian Wells with fellow Russian Elena Vesnina. They lost in three sets, and Sharapova, who hasn't competed in a singles tournament since last August, said she doesn't have a timetable for when she'll play again.
For her sake, it won't be too much longer. Unless your name is Serena or Andre, an extended layoff is not going to do your game any favors. Just ask Lleyton Hewitt. At this level, as the competition constantly improves, losing even a half a step can mean the difference between getting the ball back and getting beat. Sharapova's wheels are fine, of course, and though she's no speed merchant, she can work her way back to match fitness.
But what about the shoulder? Her serve was one of her biggest weapons. Stripped of a powerful delivery, Maria Sharapova becomes Elena Dementieva -- a good, but not great, player. (Indeed, I'd probably pick Dementieva in that head-to-head scenario.)
In the midst of Sharapova's comeback came word that she may executive produce a MTV reality show based loosely on her life. Though it's too early to put much stock in this (Sharapova once explored a tennis-themed show for the CW that never got off the ground), the news is ill timed. If ever there was a moment in Sharapova's career when she should cast off all off-court distractions, throw away the fashion doodle pads, and focus only on her tennis, it's now.
I'm also reminded of a conversation I had with Sharapova last spring in Manhattan. I asked her if she saw herself competing well into her twenties. After flashing me an "Are you kidding?" look, she emphatically dismissed the idea, saying that she didn't see herself as one of those careerist tennis types.
But that was before rotator cuff surgery. Perhaps the extended layoff has changed her outlook. Perhaps it's ignited a newfound passion for tennis. She'll need one, because it doesn't take much for this sport to pass you by.