Monday, August 30, 2010

The Courage to Crush

With health concerns fading, Maria Sharapova's confidence keeps growing. Is a fourth Grand Slam coming next?

Her blood-curdling battle cry can be heard far outside the tennis stadium, by fans who are rushing through the turnstiles, hoping to catch a glimpse. She's got legs as long as the Mississippi, a face as recognizable as the Mona Lisa, and swagger like a Russian gangster.

'Oh, look,’ they say, as they hurry to their courtside seats. 'She's as pretty as a picture, yet meaner than a bed of nails.’

Maria Sharapova is a lot of things, but most of all, these days she's healthy -- and confident.

"It's been a really long road," the three-time Grand Slam champion told the press after a hard fought win in Stanford, California earlier this summer, "but I'm just so happy that I can come out and not really worry about too many things, like I did last year."

While Maria hasn't won a title this summer in the States, she has been to the final in each tournament she has played, and she is looking more and more like the old Maria, the one who routinely overwhelmed her opponents with her dynamic firepower and fiery presence. "Just to know that I can come out every day, and even if I don't feel a hundred percent, I don't feel like so many things are on my mind like they were before, like 'How's it going to feel?' and 'Am I going to get through the match?' is great," she continued.

In contrast to the comebacks of Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin, who were fast out of the gate and have since reached plateaus, Sharapova’s return has resembled a slow-starting locomotive, chugging in resolute fashion toward an inevitably fast cruising speed.

But the comebacks of the Belgians and the comebacks of Sharapova, when closely examined, are not at all similar. Clijsters and Henin left the game mentally exhausted, and when they returned they were well-rested, recharged, and most importantly, unconcerned about their health.

Sharapova, meanwhile, left the game when injuries made it impossible for her to stay.

The 6’2” Russian was 32-4 in 2008, and had started the year at an amazing 18-0 clip, but her right shoulder was suffering the consequences of her absolutely ferocious playing style. After an Australian Open title, and two more titles in the spring that eventually landed her the No. 1 spot in the rankings for a brief spell, the shoulder finally forced Maria into submission prior to the U.S. Open.

After a nine month layoff due to the ensuing shoulder surgery, Maria reemerged, but she was clearly not the same player. Yes, the signature pugnacity was still there, but the serve --characterized by that classically executed wind-up and huge soaring follow-through -- was not. Even so, with an abbreviated motion that she clearly didn't relish using, and mounting double fault tallies that had critics doubting her chances of ever winning another slam, Sharapova trudged onward.

It wasn't pretty, but it was feisty. It wasn’t easy, but it was compelling. Here was a proud woman who had been perhaps the most recognizable face of tennis since her first Grand Slam title in 2004 -- even her dog Dolce was more popular than most women in the WTA’s top-20 before the injury -- now more than willing to claw her way back from obscurity with all the world watching through their collective microscopes.

And while critics doubted, Maria patiently believed. While many failed to see the true ardor that Maria would require to make it back to the top, Maria was patient, exacting, and she worked harder than ever.

“The shoulder changed her serving motion,” Nick Bollettieri told the New York Observer at the U.S. Open last year. “When you have a muscle memory of 15 years serving one way and at age 22 you have to make a change in your swing motion, that’s not the easiest thing to do,” he said.

Maria has recently gone back to her elongated motion, and since then her serve has once again become a shot that inspires fear in the hearts of her competition. “I knew eventually I would go back (to the old wind-up), I just didn’t quite know when,” she said at Stanford. “The abbreviated serve is just something I knew I had to do for a few months. To go from something that you’ve done all your life, which is pretty loose and flowy, to all of a sudden go to something that was really short, it took a while.”

It has been fifteen grueling months since her return to tennis, and, impressively, Maria’s commitment to excellence has never wavered throughout this trying time. At age 24, it is becoming clear that Sharapova, when it is all said and done, will be defined by her character, her willingness to battle, and her unquenchable desire to win-not the injury that tried to keep her down.

“Maria Sharapova has something inside her that is fantastic,” says her longtime mentor, Nick Bollettieri, “and that is called the will to compete. She’s serving well again, she’s very confident, she hits the ball early and flat, and that’s what makes her special,” he added.

With the confidence that comes from being healthy, and the maturity that comes from having dealt with a lion’s share of adversity, Maria Sharapova appears primed to take another shot at Grand Slam glory.

While there are no guarantees when the U.S. Open rolls around, one thing is for certain: Maria will play to win.

“You can’t be out there making excuses and saying it’s too tough,” she said.

Amen to that.

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