Maria Sharapova deserves full credit for reaching her second Grand Slam final in the past six months, given the injuries and layoffs that have marred the more recent years of her decorated career.
After suffering several early round Grand Slam defeats, losses to lowly-ranked foes and a floundering ranking in her quest to come back from shoulder surgery, her persistence has been remarkable, and her career revival wonderful news for women’s tennis.
But unfortunately, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the three-time major champion may never be quite the formidable opponent she once was before that shoulder injury cruelly struck her down in her prime.
That prime was in evidence right here at Melbourne Park in 2008, when the Russian ripped through the draw to claim her first Australian Open title. It was one of the more devastating performances in women’s tennis history. Sharapova swatted aside quality opposition including Lindsay Davenport, Elena Dementieva, Justine Henin, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic – all in straight sets – to claim an emphatic victory.
It precipitated a fabulous 24-1 start to the 2008 season before her right shoulder troubles took hold.
Although it was the site of her most impressive career performance, Rod Laver Arena on women’s final day has also been the scene of some of her most devastating losses. There was the 6-1, 6-2 thumping at the hands of Serena Williams in 2007, and tonight, a similarly lopsided 6-3, 6-0 loss to new women’s world No.1 Victoria Azarenka.
Sharapova remained upbeat in the post-match press conference, highlighting the positives of reaching her first Australian Open final in four years.
“Obviously to get to the final is a good achievement, but to end up being the one that loses is always tough, no matter what sport you're in,” she said.
“But I'm proud of the fact that I made it this far … It's a good start to the year, I guess, for me. I have a lot to look forward to this year.”
It was a brave front being presented by the Russian, because just a little earlier at the trophy presentation, she looked to be holding back tears. Defeat is always a bitter pill to swallow, but when you’ve had your head handed to you on a plate for the second straight time in a Grand Slam decider – Sharapova was straight-setted by another young upstart in her first major final, Petra Kvitova, at Wimbledon last year – it is especially draining on your emotions.
There must also be the realisation that her game simply still isn’t what it was compared to when she was a frequent major contender in the mid-to-late 2000s. The flow and confidence present in her game during her 2008 Australian Open run – powerful, confident serving coupled with fluid yet shattering groundstrokes – just isn’t apparent.
Although her serve has improved enormously beyond the shaky delivery that characterised her return to professional tennis in mid 2009, her take-back is comparatively laboured and her ball-toss more erratic. Her groundstrokes err more frequently under pressure than in her prime – witness the horrendous tally of 30 errors compared with Azarenka’s tidy 12 tonight. And it was obvious that Sharapova had no plan B to counter an opponent playing irresistible tennis. When faced with the onslaught, the Russian responded with all that she knows, and that was to simply hit harder. This inevitably lead to more errors.
Sharapova put her unforced error count down to Azarenka’s superior performance, and had glowing praise for her 22-year-old conqueror.
“She did everything better than I did today … I was always the one running around like a rabbit, you know, trying to play catch-up all the time. She was a step quicker. Her shot was bigger. First shot was bigger. Just not a good combination (for me), I guess,” Sharapova recounted.
“She's a top player. She's had a fantastic tournament. She won the event (in Sydney) before this, so she's playing with a lot of confidence, as well. I think that really showed.”
So what does Sharapova have to do to reverse these kinds of results? While to a lesser degree, her game was also taken away from her at Wimbledon during the loss to Kvitova, and if she continues coming up against younger yet equally-hungry opponents on the biggest stages, she could find herself struggling to ever again lift the silverware she covets so dearly.
Although she didn’t pin-point a specific part of her game that needed addressing, Sharapova said she would continue to put in the hard work to get herself in the same position that Azarenka herself enjoyed.
It’s this positivity and refusal to dwell on the past that has been a cornerstone of her previous successes, and that could ultimately see her return to her lofty perch.
“It's frustrating (to lose in the final), but I have a pretty good head on my shoulders in terms of having a good perspective on sport and life,” Sharapova said.
“And as hard as it is, and as much as you want to be the champion, there's only one. That's why the feeling is so special when you do achieve that. That's why the work is so hard and extreme. That's why the pleasure that you get and the excitement is what you work for, because you know how special it is.
“I don't regret the work that I put in at all. Getting to this stage is great for me … That's why I'm looking forward to the rest of the year.”