Maria Sharapova’s famed fighting spirit was at its gutsy best as she won her 30th career title in Stuttgart and survived yet another career slump. Sharapova’s trophy-winning week, which saw her fight back from 5-6, 0-30 in the final set against Safarova in the first round and from a set and 1-3 down against Ivanovic in the final, may prove to be a turning point in another dramatic chapter of her career.
Every top player suffers a slump at some stage, but Sharapova has gone through and survived more than her fair share. Her first was in 2007 when, ranked no.1, she retired in the Tokyo Pan Pacific semi-finals with a hamstring injury. A shock loss to Zvonareva in Indian Wells and a heavy defeat to Serena Williams in Miami followed. Then, the killer blow sent her flying; a shoulder injury, the ailment that would come back to haunt her at different stages of her career, forced her to miss much of the Clay season.
While she returned to make the semi-finals of the French Open and win the US Open series, she was thrashed by Venus Williams in the last sixteen at Wimbledon and had to withdraw in the semi-finals of L.A to Petrova. Soon after, a third round defeat to then world no.32 Agnieszka Radwanska at the US Open proved to be too much for the proud Russian. Sharapova took time out to recover before coming back in Moscow. Though she lost there to Azarenka in her opening match, she returned at the WTA Championships in Madrid to make the final and push world no. 1 Henin to three sets.
If anyone had any questions as to whether then two-time Slam winner Sharapova was really back or not, the Russian answered it by winning the 2008 Australian Open, thrashing Henin 6-0, 6-4 along the way. Titles in Doha and Amelia Island followed and Sharapova seemed better than ever as she tore apart one victim after another.
Something else was tearing though- Sharapova’s shoulder. And her game was tearing apart, too, as she suffered the second slump of her career. The Russian had to withdraw from her semi-final in Rome and then suffered an early exit to Safina at Roland Garros. Things went from bad to worse as she lost to 154th ranked Kudryavetseva in the second round of Wimbledon. Though Sharapova came back to play at Montreal, her shoulder injury meant she had to withdraw in the last sixteen. This time her shoulder would require surgery that forced her to miss the rest of the season and much of the beginning of 2009.
Ranked 126th, Sharapova returned to the tour in Warsaw in May. She lost in the quarters and then reached the same stage at her next event at Roland Garros. Though she lost early at Wimbledon and the US Open, she was doing well in other events and climbing back up the rankings, her victory in Tokyo in the autumn seeing her rise to no. 15.
But her patchy form continued as, inhibited by her chronic shoulder injury, Sharapova struggled with her serve and double-faults infested her game. Sharapova hit 11 of them in her loss to Kirilenko in the first round of the 2010 Australian Open. While she won international tournaments in Memphis and Strasbourg, she could not get her game in gear in the bigger events against higher ranked opponents. Her serve more often than not failed her when matches got tight and she hovered outside of the top 10 for the rest of the season.
She would soon land back where she belonged, though in very surprising circumstances. The once self-proclaimed “cow on ice” on the Clay won in Rome. It was her first Premier clay title. She then made the last four of Roland Garros. The confidence winning gave her was evident as she made the Wimbledon final. But while she won another Premier title in Cincinnati, she suffered a third round loss at the US Open to Pennetta, as well as early losses in Tokyo and the WTA Championships where she withdrew after two matches.
Another setback, and another fight back, too. Sharapova pulled her game together and in 2012, she came back with her signature grit and tenacity, reaching the Australian Open final, finishing runner-up in Indian Wells and Miami and winning clay court titles in Stuttgart and Rome.
Then came one of the finest points of her career- Sharapova won the French Open and achieved the career grand slam. She also reached no. 1 in the world rankings for the fifth time in her career . Though she did not stay there long, losing to the talented Lisicki in Wimbledon to hand the no. 1 ranking back to Azarenka, she made the Olympics final, the US Open semis, the Beijing final and the WTA Championships final, finishing the season ranked no. 2
2013 started well, too, as Sharapova made semi-finals in Melbourne and Doha and won titles in Indian Wells and Stuttgart. When she raised the Stuttgart trophy, her career looked to have reached its peak. She was ranked no. 3 and was the reigning Rome and French Open champion. Further Clay court success looked sure to come. But someone would stand in her way; someone Sharapova had made her name beating in the 2004 Wimbledon final, but who was now too formidable for her to knock down: Serena Williams.
In both the Rome and Roland Garros finals, Sharapova came up against Serena and, while she performed well in both finals, she failed to win a set against a woman she trails 2-16 in their head to head and has not beaten since 2004. Those losses certainly affected Sharapova’s confidence as she lost to a qualifier in the second round of Wimbledon a couple of weeks later.
2013 saw Sharapova enter only one more event, in Cincinnati, as her shoulder injury took its toll again. She did not come back until Australia this year, losing in Brisbane to Williams and then to Cibulkova in Melbourne. More losses followed to Pavlyuchenkova at the Paris Indoors, 79th ranked Camila Giorgi in Indian Wells, and Serena Williams in Miami before she turned things around in Stuttgart.
But it looked like the slump might get deeper in her opening match. Leading 5-1 in the tiebreak, Sharapova unravelled, all the way to trailing 5-6, 0-30. Safarova, serving for the match, was determined to outdo her though when it came to letting a lead slip and smash all over the clay. The world no. 26 made error after error and handed the match to Sharapova in a third set tiebreaker.
The Russian did not look a gift horse in the mouth, marching confidently into the final where she came up against Ana Ivanovic. Once again, Sharapova found herself behind, but, as she has done so often in her career, the Russian hung in, played her way into the match and fought back from a set and 1-3 down to win 11 of the last 13 games to lift the trophy.
That trophy may very well give her the boost she needs to come out of her third career slump once and for all. Sharapova said after her victory that she was feeling more confident about her game and her shoulder after her tough wins. She added she wanted to build on what she had started at the event and make the most of her upcoming tournaments before the French Open.
After she survived her previous two slumps, Sharapova not only won big, she also got better. What she will do next remains to be seen, but the fight is still there, and ring side seats will be quickly filled up as tennis fans get ready to watch her turn the tennis court into a boxing ring only the game’s heavyweights will want to climb into and trade blows.
Commentary by Christian Deverille