Now that the 2013 tennis season is officially in the books, we'll be looking back at the seasons of some of the game's most compelling players.
2013 in Review: Maria Sharapova
Titles: Indian Wells, Stuttgart
Highlights: Sharapova reached five finals, including her second consecutive French Open final. Won prestigious titles at Indian Wells and Stuttgart. Went 7-1 against members of the top 10 not named Serena Williams. Hired Sven Groeneveld as coach in November.
Lowlights: Went 0-4 vs. Serena Williams. Pulled out of the U.S. Open due to a concerning bout with shoulder bursitis. Hired and fired Jimmy Connors as a coach within the span of one match.
Compared to her 2012 season, in which Maria Sharapova demonstrated her all-world capabilities on the clay (as French Open champion) and in three-set matches (she went 14-1 on the season), 2013 has to be considered a disappointment for the four-time Grand Slam champion.
Still, at 37-7, Sharapova proved that she is perhaps the best damn player in women's tennis aside from Serena Williams. Her semifinal victory over Victoria Azarenka at Roland Garros was her second straight colossal victory against the Minsk, Belarus native after dropping four out of five, and it proved that the 26-year-old Russian has the ability to reverse course in a rivalry against a world-class player.
Well, sort of.
Unfortunately for Sharapova, she has been unable to come up with solutions to Serena Williams' confounding game for eight years running. Thirteen straight times Sharapova has taken the court against the most dominant player in women's tennis, and 13 straight times she has been sent packing with only question marks surrounding her.
In their second meeting of four in 2013, Sharapova looked to have finally solved the Williams riddle in the Miami final, but after moving ahead by a set and a break she dropped the final 10 games to Williams, then issued the following quote in her post-match press conference: “It was a step in the right direction and there's no doubt that we'll be playing many more times. There's no doubt I'll be able to beat her.”
Those words didn't prove to be prophetic this season, as Sharapova was sacked two more times by the younger Williams sister, in the Madrid and French Open finals. Though disappointing, the fact that Sharapova reached those finals was further proof of her remarkable consistency and unwillingness to bend against lesser opponents on any surface.
It all fell apart for Sharapova at Wimbledon a few weeks later, as she slipped and slid to a devastating loss to Michelle Larcher de Brito in the second round and, thanks to hip and then shoulder injuries, she would not win another match on the year.
It was a grim finish, but one must remember that it came at the end of a long, fruitful run for Sharapova. She had played 115 matches in a year and a half (and clinched the career Grand Slam in that span) by the time she left the All England Club.
Maybe it was time for a break?
And who knows, maybe--just maybe--if Serena Williams comes down to earth in 2014, Sharapova will have laid enough of a foundation to finally scratch out a win or two against the World No. 1.
At times, both in Miami and in the Madrid and Roland Garros finals, Sharapova appeared to be making progress. Perhaps a bit of wisdom from her new coach Sven Groeneveld and a completely rested and rehabbed body will enable her to do the trick in 2014. On thing's for certain: There will come a time when the fact that Sharapova is more than five years younger than Serena Williams will become a factor that works in the Russian's favor. Whether or not it will be next year remains to be seen, but if Sharapova can put forth the same type of dogged, determined effort to go deep into draws on a consistent basis she will certainly have her chances again next year.
Which brings us to the next question about Sharapova: What is the severity of the shoulder injury and how will it affect her game next season, if at all? Sharapova's serve may not be the weapon that it used to be, but if she's forced to play in pain, her whole game will suffer. Working in her favor will be the fact that the Russian has already survived one shoulder surgery and, though it was an arduous journey for her to come back to full fighting form, the experience should help her with pain and expectation management as the season gets underway.
Sharapova will turn 27 in April, and there is certainly no need to rush back into action. But if she is ready to go in January, then one would think that she'll be at a competitive advantage. Having not played a competitive match since August (and only one of them since Wimbledon), she'll no doubt have some of the freshest legs on the WTA Tour.
There are a lot of unknowns for Sharapova this off-season, but what we do know is that she is one one of the greatest fighters in the history of women's tennis. It may take her a while to get back to form, but when she does, she'll be a threat to win Grand Slams once again.