Wimbledon 2018: Can Maria Sharapova rewind clock at the venue of her maiden Grand Slam triumph?
Sharapova's preparation for the grass season finale at Wimbledon has been far from ideal. She has skipped all the tune-up tournaments, and as she returns to the venue where she first won a major, the Russian ace would look to rewind the clock.
Last week, the carefully manicured lawns of Wimbledon received an unexpected visitor from Canada, Sidney Crosby. In his own country, he’s an ice hockey legend, a world champion and double Winter Olympics gold medallist. Crosby had a high-profile tour guide, a certain Maria Sharapova.
This is the first time after missing the last two editions that the Russian has come to Wimbledon. In 2016, she was serving a drug ban and last year she was expected to compete in the qualifying rounds but withdrew due to injury. She does know her way around the famous pathways that wind along the courts of the world’s oldest Grand Slam. After all, it is where she first burst onto the scene when she beat Serena Williams in the 2004 final, in a match that was dubbed “the most stunning upset in memory” — all when she was only 17.
“No words can really explain what it means to walk out on to one of those courts at Wimbledon as an athlete,” the world no 24 told The Guardian recently.
“It’s always incredibly special coming back to a place where you feel like you are a very small part of its history. I cherish that (2004) victory very much, but obviously when you get on the court you treat it as if you’ve never won it before so you have that extra motivation.”
Now at 31, she no longer exudes the same conviction in her performances that had taken her to No 1 in the world and five Grand Slam titles, including a career Slam. Not yet at least. Since her return from her 15-month ban in April 2017, after testing positive for meldonium, she has played in three majors but her highest finish was in the quarter-finals of the French Open last month. That too after she received a walkover in the fourth round after Serena Williams pulled out with an injury. In the quarter-final against 2016 champion Garbine Muguruza, she could win only three games.
Her form this season hasn’t been top notch, although she has returned to the top-25 in the world and is the 24th seed at the Championships this year. Her win-loss record this year is an indifferent 15-8, with her best finish so far being the semi-finals of the season-opener in Shenzhen and later in the Rome Masters, where she lost to eventual finalist Simona Halep. In fact, her only title since returning to the tour came in a low-key season-ender at Tianjin last year.
Curiously, her preparation for the grass season finale at Wimbledon has been far from ideal. Sharapova has skipped all the grass tune-up tournaments. Instead, she played two exhibition matches at the Aspall Tennis Classic at the Hurlingham Club. In her first, she played World No 36 Maria Sakkari and lost in straight sets. The Russian improved her level in the second match though, winning 6-1, 7-5 against compatriot Natalia Vikhlyantseva, ranked 106.
Her decision to skip the regular tour events in favour for the two exhibition matches though was made in her attempt to prolong a career that has already been disrupted due to the ban.
“It’s pretty much the only preparation I’ll have,” she said. “I decided not to play an event before Wimbledon this year as I had a pretty long clay court season with four tournaments. So just for the longevity and kind of being mindful of a long career, you make those decisions.”
Wimbledon though is a priority.
Since her return, she has shown, albeit in brief spells, that she still has the ability to be a stern title-challenger. Standing at 6-foot-2, the towering service game is an ally that accompanies her powerful ground strokes that meticulously catch the angles. And when the lethal ground strokes zip off the faster grass courts at Wimbledon compared to the other surfaces, the combination makes her a potent threat.
Since her solitary Wimbledon title in 2004, it’s been mainly the Williams sisters and that have dominated the major. On the way, Amelie Mauresmo, Marion Bartoli, last year’s champion Muguruza and two-time champion Petra Kvitova have won the title. The latter in fact, beat Sharapova for the 2011 crown — the only other time the Russian reached the final.
The motivation back then was different though. She was still an important player in the majors, and would go onto become the only Russian to win a career Slam when she won the first of her two French Open titles in 2012.
Now as she heads back to Wimbledon, she’s hoping to find that Grand Slam-winning touch, just as she did back in 2004. Perhaps, the tour for Crosby was her way of reminding herself of what it’s like to be one of the biggest players, on tennis’ biggest stage.
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