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Old Jan 10th, 2011, 10:20 PM   #1327
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Re: ** Masha News and Articles! ** Vol. 2

Sharapova looks to reign at RLA again

Monday, 10 January, 2011
By Matt Cronin

When Maria Sharapova left Melbourne after winning Australian Open 2008, the task ahead of her was to establish herself as a truly dominant player. Unfortunately, the world never got to find out just how great she could be. A mere six weeks later, she seriously injured her shoulder at the tournament at Indian Wells. Six months later, she underwent shoulder surgery and hasn't been the same player since.

The Sharapova that enters Australian Open 2011 is ambitious as she's ever been, but is more cautious with her expectations. Perhaps that is because she has become more realistic after two difficult seasons where she rarely felt completely healthy, or maybe it's because even when she was fit, she has dropped tight contests that she was used to winning in her heyday.

Either way, the three-time Grand Slam champion goes into the tournament at a prove-it stage of her career, a place she hasn't been in since she joined the tour full time in 2003. She's still young at the age of 23, but like most top players who began competing as children, her body has taken a pounding over the years and she has to be extremely careful about overplaying.

It is for this reason she did not accept a wildcard into Sydney, despite suffering a somewhat surprising loss to Hungary's Greta Arn in the quarterfinals of one of the year's opening tournaments in Auckland the week before. She was concerned that if she went deep into the draw in Sydney, by the time she arrived in Melbourne she might have burned off too much jet fuel.

Nonetheless, unlike 2008 when Sharapova arrived in Melbourne Park as one of the favourites, and even less so than last year, when she came into the event with high expectations after a strong autumn before being shocked by her friend Maria Kirilenko in the first round, Sharapova will not stride into the Australian Open as one of the top five title contenders. While she is certainly capable of lifting the trophy again - especially with five-time champion Serena Williams absent through injury - she hasn't reached the final four of a Grand Slam since Australian Open 2008, and as confident a person as she is, she's been having a few doubts about her ability to nail her shots when she needs to.

Her 2010 Grand Slam results are a great example. Not only did she fail to put away Kirilenko in a marathon contest in Melbourne, she also suffered tight losses to Justine Henin, Serena and current No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki at the French Open, Wimbledon and US Open, contests where had she picked up a few more crucial points, she would have come away the winner. Toss in her 2-67-6 (4) 6-2 loss against Kim Clijsters in the final of Cincinnati, where she held three match points, and you see a woman who keeps getting her own foot stuck in the door when she's trying to slam it shut.

"It's all really capitalising on what you have," said a devastated Sharapova after her loss to Wozniacki. "You work hard for something, and then you let it slip away. Obviously, a bit unfortunate in the Grand Slams. I had my fair share of chances and didn't take them throughout this whole year in the big events."

The Russian's year essentially ended there, as she had little desire to travel to Asia after the US Open and played badly in both her events there. She did make two major moves in the off-season though, adding a co-coach, Swede Thomas Hogstedt, to work with her longtime coach, Michael Joyce, and becoming engaged to NBA player Sasha Vujacic.

But while her personal life is settled, that doesn't mean that everything is clicking on court. She has switched racquets, from Prince to HEAD, and is playing with a HEAD prototype. She's still fiddling around with her once vaunted serve, which is now back to pre-surgery speeds but has been wildly inconsistent. Because she's not the best mover, she's also trying to come to the net more to end points earlier, even occasionally using a slap and charge off her foes' second serves, but she's still not a dependable net player and cannot be expected to consistently pull off difficult volleys.

If she's going to cause major damage in Melbourne, Sharapova needs to use the same formula that won her the 2008 title over Ana Ivanovic: consistent, deep serving; powerful first strike tennis off the ground, and hyper aggressive returning. She also needs to mix in some solid defence and not get impatient with herself like she did against Wozniacki. The book on how to beat Sharapova is to string her out in points and make her over-anxious. While that wasn't a very successful strategy in 2008 as she was largely able to dictate play, it's no longer an unreasonable game plan for worthy opponents.

Now Sharapova, who as the No.16 seed in Melbourne will avoid having to face a top seed before the fourth round, has to show that she is capable of moving up to another level and once again challenging for the top spot.

She says she keeps things in perspective, but that viewpoint also includes a belief that she will win another major.

"I'm still a big competitor. I worked on patience so long during the injury and obviously wanted good results and wanted to go far in the Slams and [in 2010] it hasn't happened," she said. But that's the way it is and I'm not going to quit because I didn't. I was No. 1 in [the] summer I got injured and had just won a Slam [the Australian Open] and little do you know, I'm out of [the] game next nine months. I'm not one to sit and say what could have been and I've said this from day one that I'm just really fortunate to have come back."

Last edited by ~MashyOwnThemAll : Jan 10th, 2011 at 10:47 PM.
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