A shoulder surgery, patience, and a lot of tournaments later and Maria Sharapova has returned to the top. She’s reached the Australian Open and Wimbledon finals, but how fitting might it be that she could win her first slam title in years, and it would be the only one she has yet to win in her career.
The largest obstacle on Sharapova’s comeback has been her serve. Shoulder surgery forced her to relearn the shot and with such a high ball toss, it was often a struggle just to get it over the net. Combined with the fact that Sharapova is not the most natural athlete in the world and does not have amazing movement, players were able to return well and force her off balance from the word go. Power players need their serve to be solid so they can follow up off the serve and take control of the points. For Sharapova it was often more like volleyball, and she was tossed into a defensive, retrieving state on serve. Her matches tended to be highly erratic as she would go through spells of struggling on serve. Damaging her overall confidence, momentum could swing wildly.
In my opinion, Sharapova’s improved serve has made all of the difference. On serve, she is not only cutting out double faults but pummeling the ball on the first serve. This often allows her to move into the court to hit her trademark shot after the serve in which the opponent is sent scrambling. With pressure off of her on serve, she can go for it on the return. It sounds fluffy, but the large strings of dumbfounding, bonehead errors (which may also have been due to the shoulder injury) are largely gone and Sharapova has become a figure of powerful consistency, regardless of surface.
The tour has desperately missed her. Most fans tend to love her determination, and those who don’t fall on the side of those of her biggest rivals (Serena, Vika). Though she has been around since the ripe age of 17, Sharapova is not a figure of a generation gone by (Williams sisters, Clijsters, Henin) and is a player who can continue to carry the tour to bigger things, hopefully inspiring a(n Azarenka) rivalry or two on the way.
A footnote needs to be made about Petra Kvitova, who lost to Sharapova in the semifinals. We shouldn’t be panicking quite yet, but as we’ve seen with players in the past, results can be inflated by one big slam final or victory. In other words, a high ranking can help a player skip by a lot of challenges and narrowly defeat players they should be destroying, much like Kvitova. I wouldn’t say that Petra is much of a natural athlete or mover, but her ball striking and power is quite immense. That being said, there are some serious timing issues that need to be addressed, and soon. She will likely power her way through her first several rounds of Wimbledon, but if she comes up against a crafty player who can absorb pace and take advantage of the low bounces of grass, watch out.