Join Date: May 2008
Location: Living in technicolor
Re: ** Masha News and Articles! ** Vol. 2
Sharapova's Long Scrap Back
Two Years After Shoulder Surgery, Questions Remain About Her Serve—and Her Toughness
By MATTHEW FUTTERMAN
AND TOM PERROTTA
Maria Sharapova is one of the hardest workers on the women's tennis tour. She beats balls across nets and labors through agility training for hours on end. Those who know her and have coached her say unlike a lot of pros, she actually seems to enjoy playing tennis.
She was such a precocious talent and has been so prolifically photographed in glamorous advertising campaigns it's easy to forget that she's only 23, that she won three Grand Slam titles before attaining legal drinking age and has reached No. 1 on four different occasions—most recently in May, 2008, after she took the Australian Open without dropping a set.
As the U.S. Open approaches, Ms. Sharapova is still trying to fully regain the form she lost that same year after undergoing shoulder surgery, a procedure that sapped much of the bite from her lethal serve.
Last year, as she double-faulted her way across the globe while using an abbreviated service motion, the sport's chattering classes were willing to give her an injury pass. But this year, after she bowed out in the first round at the Australian, suffered an elbow injury, then was ingloriously bounced in the third round at the French and the fourth round at Wimbledon, there's a big question hanging in the air: Will Maria Sharapova ever be one of the world's great tennis players again?
So far this season, Ms. Sharapova has two tournament wins, both at small events where she didn't play anyone who was ranked higher than No. 49. At the tour stop in Cincinnati two weeks ago, she showed flashes of her old form, making it to the final against Kim Clijsters, the defending U.S. Open champion.
Then Ms. Sharapova blew three match points. Then the rain came. When the players returned to the court more than an hour later, Ms. Clijsters ran Ms. Sharapova ragged, ultimately prevailing in three sets.
Ms. Sharapova injured her heel and had to withdraw from this week's tour stop in Montreal. She is expected to be fit for the U.S. Open.
Robert Lansdorp, the California coach who fine-tuned Ms. Sharapova's strokes when she was a girl, watched his former pupil's collapse on television. "When I saw her play the first set I said, 'this girl could win the U.S. Open,'" he said. "I was disappointed that she let it go. She has been doing that the last year. She used to be tough all the way through, that's why she was number one."
After undergoing rotator cuff surgery in October 2008, Ms. Sharapova spent more than six months on the sidelines and dropped to No. 126 in the world. When she came back, she was forced to shorten her service motion to compensate for the weakness in her shoulder—which led to a torrent of double faults. "To go from something that you've done all your life, which is pretty loose and flowy, to something really short, it took a while," she said at a press conference before a tournament in Stanford, Calif. last month. "It was just really inconvenient."
Finally in the fall of 2009, her shoulder was strong enough for her to drop the truncated motion for her old form, where her racket head grazes the ground before whipping around in a full loop. Still, her serve seems a work in progress. Ms. Sharapova barely cracks the top 10 on the women's tour in total aces and isn't in the top 10 in break points saved, first-serve percentage or the percentage of points won on her second serve.
Mr. Lansdorp has a theory about this: "She's tossing the ball too frickin' high," he said. "It looks like she wants to play tennis with Jesus. Her elbow is not up early enough."
With a weakened serve, opponents can exploit the 6-foot-2 Ms. Sharapova's limited mobility, especially on fast courts. "When you're that tall, unless you're super-athletic, if you don't have that weapon in the serve like you had before, you're not going to have all those free points that you need," said Nick Bollettieri, her former coach. "Once the ball is in play five, six, or seven times, the tide begins to go against her." Ms. Sharapova declined to be interviewed for this story.
"There are not a lot of players who come back from shoulder surgery," said Max Eisenbud, an agent at IMG worldwide who has worked with Ms. Sharapova since she was a child. "Here's a woman who could be sitting on the beach but instead she's working her tail off."
Mary Carillo, the longtime tennis analyst, said Ms. Sharapova is still one of the favorites at the Open, but she will never be a player who can grind out victories against better opponents when she and her serve aren't at their best.
And until her ranking improves—she's currently ranked 16th—she won't be seeded high enough to avoid top players before the late rounds.
"Only Serena is ahead of her in terms of willpower," Ms. Carillo said. "You look at the competition. Serena has been laid off, Venus hasn't won anything off grass in years. How can you not take seriously someone like Maria? Yet the court is very fast at the U.S. Open, and that may not be a great thing for her."
Mr. Lansdorp agreed that Ms. Sharapova could win another Grand Slam title, or more. "She has to get that old self back," he said. "Sometimes, she's unbeatable."