A first Grand Slam title in 2004—the third youngest, at 17, ever to win Wimbledon. World No1 while still a teenager in 2005, and eventually a career Slam after winning the US Open in 2006, the Australian in 2008 and the French in 2012, where she regained the No1 ranking.
I have to keep my expectations quite low and just work my way
She went on to win silver at the 2012 Olympics, claimed the Roland Garros title again in 2014, and now has 35 titles. Add in the WTA Championships in 2004 and the Fed Cup in 2008 and there is little that Sharapova has not achieved.
And yet… were it not for so many injuries, there may have been much more.
The infamous Sharapova shoulder began to cause problems, including an absence from much of the clay season, in 2007. Then in 2008, after a second-round loss at Wimbledon, an MRI scan confirmed a tear that forced her out of competition for the rest of the season, including the Beijing Olympics. In October, after a failed attempt to rehabilitate the shoulder, Sharapova had surgery to repair the tear and did not attempt to defend her Australian title. By May, she was outside the top 100.
Gradually, she returned to form in 2011, made a first Major final, and reaped those 2012 successes. Yet by the summer of 2013, a return of shoulder problems saw her miss the US Open and the rest of the season. By last spring, she had risen to No2 again, only to miss months after Wimbledon with more injury.
Things looked up at the end of 2015 with some decent wins at the WTA Finals, an appearance in the IPTL in Japan, and an exhibition weekend in Los Angeles. Ranked No4, she was heading towards her 13th Australian Open, where she was runner-up last year, via the defence of her Brisbane title, only to pull out with—yes, an injury to her forearm.
So her progress since arriving in Melbourne has been watched even more eagerly than usual—and Sharapova draws big crowds and enthusiastic media interest wherever she goes. Naturally the first question she had to field at her pre-tournament press conference about her health.
“I feel really good. Got to Melbourne earlier than I wanted to, but it gave me a chance to practise here this week. Had great days on a lot of the courts. Yeah, feeling really good.”
She went on to explain how important it has been to see the bigger picture, to put together a smart schedule, and make experienced judgements.
“When you come to a tournament like Brisbane, where you’re defending champion, you find yourself in a tricky situation of, ‘Can I go out there, should I go out there? I have a pretty big event in 10 or 14 days.’
“I think experience helps in those moments… But I think I’ve been fortunate in my career to have won Grand Slams and to kind of have a bigger picture of my goals, sometimes not focus on so many tournaments, not focus on rankings, and focus on being healthy—which is really, really important at a high professional sport.”
Sharapova’s immediate problem, though, is very like the one that has dogged her since she burst centre stage in 2004. In that break-out year, the teenager beat Serena Williams to the Wimbledon title and the WTA Championships—and Sharapova has not beaten Williams since in 17 attempts. Indeed she has only won three sets since their 2005 Australian Open semi-final.
And when Sharapova missed out on Brisbane, she also missed out on a top-four place in the Australia draw—and it has been her misfortune to fall into Williams quarter.
But Sharapova is a strong-minded woman, and has bounced back from injury and lack of match-play many times before.
“I believe in myself, knowing I may not have played five matches in Brisbane, but if I commit myself, train well, get some practice sets in, I know with that mindset, yes, I might be rusty, make a few more unforced errors than I would like, but I’m ready to go.
“The first match at a Grand Slam, any tournament, is always tricky, especially going into a match against somebody I’ve never faced before. There’s a lot of new things. You have to have a little bit of a different perspective and figure things out quickly as soon as you can.”
Because before Williams, of course, Sharapova has four more opponents to negotiate. First up is Nao Hibino, on Margaret Court arena Monday evening. The 21-year-old Japanese woman won her first WTA title at Tashkent last September and is now close to a career-high 58.
Sharapova’s first seed is the big hitting Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, and then comes Svetlana Kuznetsova or Belinda Bencic. And all that before Williams, or possibly Caroline Wozniacki.
Sharapova remains pragmatic: “It’s no secret who you’re going to be playing. I mean, you’re bound to face somebody good from the first round on. There’s a reason why these players are in the draw. I can’t look too far ahead of myself. I haven’t played for a few weeks. I have to keep my expectations quite low and just work my way, work my game, work my mindset through this draw.”
She has been in this situation before, and has proven herself many times over after injury concerns. Whether she can solve the problem of Williams, she won’t know until Melbourne’s second week, but if she gets that far, she will also have passed a milestone 600 match-wins.
Given the seesawing fortunes of this popular 28-year-old, that is some achievement, whatever the end result in this her 49th Grand Slam.
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BIOGRAPHY: Anthony Martial