Can the Russian be considered a serious contender to win a second US Open crown, asks Guy McCrea?
There is no doubt that everyone involved in women’s tennis wore a huge smile the day that Maria Sharapova returned to action at the Warsaw Open in May. At just 22-years-old, the young Russian brings that much-needed package of history and glamour to the WTA Tour.
Sharapova has a big game, plenty of charisma and a legion of followers worldwide. Women’s tennis is definitely stronger when she is in the mix.
Up until last August – when her injured right shoulder finally gave up in Montreal – Sharapova’s story was one sprinkled with success. The photogenic Russian got onto everyone’s radar when she swept aside Serena Williams to win Wimbledon in 2004 at a mere seventeen years of age.
Numerous WTA Tour titles and multi-million dollar sponsorship deals followed over the next couple of years, before Sharapova added a second Slam at the US Open in 2006. The Russian struggled a little more the following season but by the beginning of 2008 was back to her brilliant best. Sharapova destroyed the field to lift a third Grand Slam crown at the Australian Open, and won 32 Tour singles matches during the first five months of the year alone.
Then her shoulder injury struck. At first, Sharapova tried to shake it off – hastily returning after brief periods of rest to compete at the French Open and at Wimbledon. Yet the injury simply became more severe as it affected the key weapons behind her rise to the top: the strong serve and ferocious forehand. Sharapova was a shadow of her former self.
Shoulder surgery and a resultant nine month period of rehabilitation away from singles play was the price she had to pay. Appearances in TV commercials and at red carpet premieres were the limit of her activity.
But now seemingly recovered, Sharapova is into the seventh event of her injury comeback. She hasn’t won any of the first six, but her results are certainly encouraging. A personal-best run to the last eight at the French Open on her least-favoured clay, together with quarter final and semi final appearances over the past two weeks at Stanford and Los Angeles suggest that Sharapova is on the road back to her best.
But a more detailed look into those recent performances suggests that path may have some way to run yet. There are areas still to be addressed which raise concerns for anyone looking to back her consistently to win on Tour.
The principal problem is Sharapova’s serve. This has had to be remodelled because of her shoulder problems – with a more ‘abridged’ action than before. But it is unclear whether this enforced change has actually blunted one of her key weapons – the big first strike.
Sharapova did serve her fair share of aces in the past – but of more frequent benefit were the short returns she was able to pick off and so collect plenty of cheap points in the process. It was an integral part of her gameplan and a key factor in her many victories.
Perhaps wary of this change, Sharapova has also served a much greater number of double faults than in the past. As an example, take her otherwise excellent run to the semi-finals in Los Angeles last week. Sharapova served a mind-boggling 61 double faults over just five matches at the Home Depot Center – including 16 in the course of her last four defeat to the eventual champion Flavia Pennetta.
With her serving advantage reduced, Sharapova has to work much harder from the baseline to win her service games – the other big area of concern. Since her comeback, half of Sharapova’s matches up until the end of Los Angeles had gone the distance. This is of even greater importance at the Grand Slams – where to conserve energy and so have the best chance of winning seven matches over two weeks, it is crucial to avoid being bogged down in long three set epics early on.
At the French Open, Sharapova was drained after four consecutive three-setters, and only managed to take two games in her quarter final defeat there.
But despite these problems, there remain plenty of good reasons to back Sharapova in the coming weeks. This is because the former world number one’s game remains best-suited to hard courts – where the true, high bounce provides the best setting for her devastating baseline game.
In addition, there is also arguably no one currently on the WTA Tour who is mentally tougher on-court than Sharapova. Ultra-competitive and cool-headed, she has proven time and again that she is a dab hand at pulling out victories even when not at her best level.
As such, there would be logic in backing her at a fair price to win on the cement in her next scheduled WTA Tour event at Toronto next week.
There would also perhaps be even greater value in doing that at the U.S. Open in September, where Sharapova is currently trading to win at around 16.0 on Betfair. This is because there are currently few female players who have a proven ability to go all the way at the Slams and are also playing well.
The Williams sisters are obvious contenders, as is Svetlana Kuznetsova if fit. But doubts persist over Ana Ivanovic’s form and the promising crop of youngsters – which include Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki – are maybe still some months away from being ready to reach a Grand Slam final.
With this in mind, if Sharapova can improve her serve and so start to win her matches more easily – a fourth Grand Slam title isn’t completely unrealistic. Sharapova is also likely to need a little bit of the luck from the draw (as she is unlikely to be seeded in New York), but if she does avoid the other big names early on, don’t rule her out – especially as she has won at Flushing Meadows before.
Reproduced with permission from betting.betfair.com. Ã‚Â© The Sporting Exchange Limited
MORE: The latest football news
MORE: The latest tennis news
BIOGRAPHY: Marcus Rashford