Maria Sharapova celebrates after her semi-final win against Petra Kvitova on Rod Laver Arena.
Ben Solomon/Tennis Australia
The stoical public face that Maria Sharapova put on during the first two years following her shoulder surgery did not always reflect the inner turmoil that was going on inside her when she couldn’t rediscover her Grand Slam-winning game.
So when she walks on court for the 2012 Australian Open women’s final against Victoria Azarenka on Saturday, she will look to complete a marathon “comeback” from an injury that is nearly four years old.
While the girl who once stepped off the bus with her father at the age of seven in the United States with little money and no English has developed a good life perspective, losing her high place in the sport was not easy for her. When the former No. 1 dropped out of the top 10 rankings, inside, she cried hard.
So if she manages to lift her first Grand Slam trophy for the first time she reigned supreme in Melbourne in 2008, expect a flood of emotion to come out. It might sound like a cliché, but another Slam title would mean the world to her.
“As positive as I always try to be, you always question what you're doing, obviously, because sometimes things work out and sometimes they don't,” she said after her gutsy semifinal win over Petra Kvitova. “And especially with the shoulder ‑‑ I knew some examples of some people that did not quite recover from surgery and that was a little frightening, but I really had no option. So it was either give it a go or not do anything about it. Of course it took a long time and it was a process, but it was just something that was in my steps that I had to go through. And I did.”
While Sharapova vowed to return to the tour at 100 percent and took 10 months off to recover from her October 2008 surgery, her arm was still relatively weak until at least half way through 2010, and then it still occasionally bothered her – hence all the number of times she has changed her service motion. Even though she returned to the WTA in tip-top shape (she had little else but to do but work the rest of her body when she wasn’t allowed to hit), it took her a while to get her tennis legs back, her rhythm and most of all, her confidence.
On the no mercy women’s circuit, her opponents couldn't care less what she had done before and ignored the public address announcers who listed her multiple achievements, including her title runs at '04 Wimbledon, the '06 US Open, the '08 Australian Open and a stint at No. 1.
She had to accept that the road back to success would be littered with many mini-failures.
"It's the first time in my life where I couldn't practice for such a long period of time," she said. "Everything about it was just bizarre. It was some things were just taken away from your life. In a strange way, it's a little calming. Even though it's obviously stressful because you don't know if you're ever going to get the chance to be out here again and you always have to be positive. Don't get me wrong, there are many days where I was really hesitant, and you try to do the best things, but there are so many different paths, voices and so many opinions, and at the end of the day, you have to try and choose the right one."
What really befuddled her was how many times she heard that as the worlds' richest women's athlete (today, she is estimated to make around $23 million per year off-court), that she might go the way of another attractive Russian player, Anna Kournikova, who quit the game prematurely because of an injury and because she no longer enjoyed the heat of high competition. That is not the 24-year-old, who does have outside interests, but who learned to love life in between the white lines.
"Tennis drives everything, drives myself, drives my business, drives everything that I do," Sharapova said back in 2010. "You miss it, you want to be out there. It's from the hour you're in the locker room and putting your dress on, to the 15 minutes before your match where you're warming up and you're pumping yourself up and going to get out there in front of 20,000 people. I certainly missed it."
It wasn’t until the spring of 2011 that she began to look like her consistent imposing self, tearing the covers of balls off the ground, returning with vengeance and delivering cold stares across the court after blasting massive winners. Her serve is still a work in progress and she is proned to double faulting, partly because she’s still not comfortable with her motion, partly because there are days when due to her surgery that she cannot feel the ball coming off her racquet, and partly because she is extremely stubborn and refuses to slow down her second serve as she prefers to smack them in above the 90 mph range, faster than most women on tour attempt.
She leads the tournament in service games won at 84 percent, has saved 31 of the 40 break points she faced (78% ), and has ripped a tournament-leading 23 return of serve winners. Add to that 77 forehand winners, and you have a woman who appears to be prepared to face the equally hard-hitting Victoria Azarenka, who has feasted upon Sharapova’s serves in their last few meetings.
The Los Angeles-based Russian is putting aside the battle for No. 1 – it’s another Australian crown that she most desires.
“I think personally, for me, it's more about the Grand Slam win than the No. 1 ranking,” she said. "That's just always been the goal for me.”