Could this be the week that Maria Sharapova finally cracks the WTA top ten again?
I came across a stunning stat last week while perusing my WTA notes: Maria Sharapova has not been ranked in the top ten since January 30th, 2009. I knew it had been a while, but I had no idea that it has been over two years. Wow.
That could all be changing next week in Miami as the current No. 13-ranked Sharapova has zero points to defend, and two players ranked just above her (Venus Williams and Marion Bartoli) have 700 and 450 respectively to defend. Also working in Maria's favor is the fact that a third player ranked above her is Serena Williams, but she's only ahead by the thinnest of margins (9 points).
One win will leapfrog Sharapova past both Williams sisters (who are inactive this week). That leaves Marion Bartoli, who was a semifinalist last year, as Maria's final hurdle to end an exasperating 26-month period of non top-ten rankings. (Provided that she isn't passed by Kuznetsova, Radwanska, or Kanepi, who aren't far behind her-- see below).
It's outrageous to think that it has taken this long for Sharapova to reach the top ten. When she stormed to the French Open quarterfinals in only her second tournament back (May, '09) from shoulder surgery, it seemed as though Maria would be a cinch for the top-ten by the end of the season.
Nearly two years later, we're still waiting. That 2009 French Open performance ended in a lopsided defeat at the hands of Dominika Cibulkova, and Maria has gone seven straight Slams without getting to the quarters since.
It has been a bumpy ride, to say the least.
The list of challenges that Maria has faced in these last two very trying years is long: there were tough draws, brought about by a low ranking; there was trepidation in her game, brought about by learning to serve with a surgically repaired shoulder; there was an elbow problem that kept her from gaining momentum in 2010. There is also the fact that the women's game places more emphasis on fitness, quickness, and agility than ever before -- these are not exactly Sharapova's greatest strengths.
In spite of it all, Maria has been close. Oh, so close.
And never, not even for a nanosecond, during the whole frustrating period of nagging injuries, near misses and inexplicably bad losses (21 double-faults vs. Oudin, 3 match points vs. Clijsters, 72 unforced errors vs. Kirilenko) has she ever wavered in intensity.
A lot of weaker players might have considered giving up the chase, or at least hanging their head and crying about it.
Not Sharapova. She's done neither, and 26-months after a 10-month hiatus, she's ready to make a statement to the rest of the tour. It's one that she's been making all along, but now she'll have the ranking to back it up: I'M STILL HERE, AND I'M STILL DANGEROUS.
It hasn't been the greatest two years of Sharapova's career by any stretch, but it has been entertaining.
Her trials and tribulations have provided us with a unique glimpse into the character of Sharapova, and the experience has been eye-opening for those who underestimated her love for the sport. We have been witness to the epic courage of the 6'2" Russian as she has fought tooth and nail to become relevant in the sport again.
Two years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine that we'd ever see it as a grand accomplishment for Maria Sharapova -- a three-time Grand Slam Champion -- to reach the top ten, but considering how much she's struggled, it is how it should be perceived.
Just a month shy of her 24th birthday, Sharapova appears determined to find a way back to the top of the sport.
One thing's for certain: if she doesn't make it, nobody will fault her for not trying.