For much of Maria Sharapova’s storied career, two things have defined her on-court play — the grunt, and the relentless flirting with the lines.
These two things have remained constant through the ups and downs that the Russian has gone through. Whether she was tearing through the Wimbledon draw as a fresh-faced 17-year-old, working furiously on improving her claycourt game in the late 2000s, or trying to shush the doubters as she made a comeback from a drug suspension, you could always tell when Sharapova was playing. There’d be a lot of shrieks, and there’d be a lot of winners and errors that landed within an inch of the line.
Lately, however, one of those two things has started to fade away. While the grunt remains loud as ever, the closeness to the lines seems to be increasing with each passing match. The winners have dried up, and the errors are wilder than they used to be.
To say that Sharapova’s comeback has been underwhelming would be an understatement. She has reached just one Grand Slam quarter-final since returning to the tour last April, and has won just one tournament — the relatively tiny event in Tianjin last year. And now, after falling in the US Open fourth round for the second year running, Sharapova has called time on her 2018 season due to a shoulder injury, making us wonder whether she’s on a terminal decline.
“Unfortunately as I recover from my right shoulder injury, I am withdrawing from Beijing, Tianjin and Moscow,” Sharapova said in a statement on the WTA website. “I will miss competing at each of these tournaments, but it is important that I allow for proper rest and recovery in the upcoming weeks,” she added.
It seems like an innocuous enough statement at first glance; this is not the first time that a high-profile player has called time on his or her season early, and it certainly won’t be the last. But the timing in Sharapova’s case is especially inconvenient, and doesn’t bode well for her future.
Looking back, you realise that her comeback actually started on a very impressive note, as she stormed to the Stuttgart semi-finals in her first tournament back. At that time, it looked like she had never left; the trademark power from the ground was again giving headaches to her opponents, and her never-say-die attitude shone in full glory.
But playing well in one tournament is quite different from bringing your best week after week the way every top player is expected to. Sharapova is 31 now, and keeping up with the grind of the tour seems to have become too big a struggle for her.
Her results fell away dramatically after that Stuttgart run, and she only regained a bit of a foothold at the US Open, where she inflicted a first-round defeat on Simona Halep in three pulsating sets. The bright lights and throaty screams of Arthur Ashe seemed to have lit a fire in her as she maintained her then-unbeaten night record in New York, with a combination of missile groundstrokes and steely nerves.
She ended up losing to Anastasija Sevastova in the fourth round as her inconsistency reared up again, but she seemed ready to return to the top echelons of the sport. Unfortunately for her, that return never came to pass.
Sharapova still seems capable of producing vintage tennis every once in a while, but her match-to-match consistency has taken a big hit. She doesn’t miss by inches anymore; she misses by meters. And she seems incapable of stringing more than two sets of good play together, irrespective of the opponent.
Her 2018 season has been all over the place, to say the least. She played two good matches in Melbourne before getting hammered by the resurgent Angelique Kerber, picked up consecutive opening-round losses in Doha, Indian Wells and Stuttgart before rediscovering her form in Rome and Madri, thrashed Karolina Pliskova in Paris before getting thrashed herself by Garbine Muguruza in the quarter-finals, suffered another opening-round loss in Wimbledon before producing one of the best matches of her career to dismantle Daria Kasatkina in Montreal, and finally, overpowered Jelena Ostapenko in New York before coming undone against Carla Suarez Navarro in the very next match.
Her losses at Montreal (she went down to Caroline Garcia in the third round just a day after that Kastakina masterclass) and Roland Garros were particularly jarring. How could she look so dominant, so invincible, on one day, only to look completely out of ideas the very next day?
To Sharapova’s credit, she seems to fully understand the heart of the problems afflicting her right now. She was asked after her loss to Suarez Navarro what the most disappointing thing about her game was at the moment, and she said, “I think not being able to consistently put up the level from one match to another…in a span of hopefully seven matches during a Grand Slam, it’s a little too up and down.”
The question, of course, is not just about whether Sharapova knows what the problem is; it is also about whether she knows how to solve it. On that front, she seems a little less clear.
When a reporter asked if she could put a finger on why she has been so inconsistent, Sharapova replied, “If I did, I’d be able to change that around immediately. I think it’s always a work in progress, and re-evaluation, and always looking ahead.”
It is tempting to think that there’s only so much she can do, if anything at all, to arrest her downward spiral. She is past 30 after all, and it may not be wrong to suggest that the sport has passed her by. Her relentless aggression doesn’t intimidate opponents the way it used to, and her lack of defensive solidity seems to have become an insurmountable weakness.
Her shoulder injury will likely make things even tougher. In a stop-start season, she has been desperately yearning for some kind of rhythm, but this latest setback could be one obstacle too many.
Remember too that it is this same right shoulder that had kept her away from the sport for nearly a year back in 2008. Her serve has never been the same since that injury; while she enjoys patches of good serving every once in a while, her double faults have become increasingly costly.
The one thing that Sharapova does have going for her is her unshakeable self-belief. She said after the US Open defeat that if she didn’t have belief in herself she wouldn’t be playing tennis at all. And she ended the press conference on a somber note, putting her life and career in perspective when asked whether this was the most challenging period of her career.
“What’s challenging is when you’re a teenager and you’ve got a few hundred dollars, and you’ve got no sense of the future. You don’t know where you’re going to end up, and you just have a dream. I think that’s a lot tougher than being 31 years old, and having the opportunity to do whatever I want in my life.”
It was a great answer, but it also begged the question whether Sharapova still has the motivation to keep fighting for a place at the top.
When she was younger, everything seemed impossible, and every day demanded fierce determination of her — which is exactly the area that she excels in. But now, life in general is far easier for the global superstar who’s got an array of million-dollar endorsements and even a money-minting candy business of her own. How much longer would she want to keep pushing herself?
The answer will become a lot clearer when she returns to the tour in 2019, but as far as her Slam-winning chances are concerned, the writing seems to be on the wall already. Sharapova doesn’t have the game to challenge for the big titles anymore, and if her shoulder injury disrupts her serving ability again, she may not be able to win the small titles either.
The grunts will be out in full force come January, but the same can’t be said about the winners that land smack on the line. Will that be a loss for the sport? To this writer's mind, it will.
After all, there are few sights more thrilling than a full-blown Sharapova battle, punctuated as it often is by a death-defying winner on the line at match point down, and an almighty shriek that threatens to tear the heavens apart.
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Updated Date: Sep 20, 2018 16:16:42 IST