10/5/2010 - Maria Sharapova lost her second-round match in Beijing with Elena Vesnina, a friend and fellow Russian, 7-6 (3), 6-2, in an encounter that was more resonant than might have been expected. In their last meeting, their only previous one, Sharapova gave Vesnina just three games in an early-round Australian Open encounter. Thus, Sharapova's loss today seemed to speak volumes about her struggle to return to the top.
Sharapova, now 23, is an enormous international star. As a former No. 1, three-time Grand Slam champion, and marketing dynamo, she's a made woman. But the relevant question here is, are her days as a contender at major events over? She's played well, but only in fits and starts. She's always done the most damage at hard-court tournaments, and while she reached the final at Cincinnati (she lost a three-setter to Kim Clijsters) and the fourth-round at the U.S. Open, she's played just three matches on the current Asian swing and won just one.
We all know she's been plagued by debilitating injury—a bum shoulder that drove her off the tour in May of 2008, just a few months after she beat Ana Ivanovic for the Australian Open title. She had shoulder surgery in October of that year and was out for almost 10 months. When she returned in 2009, she played for periods, but won only one event—when her opponent in the Tokyo final, Jelena Jankovic, retired before the first set was finished.
This year, Sharapova has struggled at the majors. She lost to Maria Kirilenko in her first match of the Australian Open. She won a relatively minor event in Memphis, rekindling the hopes of her fans, but lost in the second round of Indian Wells, missed Miami, and was dismissed from Madrid in the first-round by Lucie Safarova.
Although Sharapova made a great effort to win Strasbourg on clay in May, she lost to Justine Henin in the third-round of the French Open—nothing to be ashamed about there, nor in her performance at Wimbledon, where she again demonstrated that she's one of the few women who can stand up the the heat and mental pressure brought to fray by Serena Williams. Sharapova played brave, sometimes impressive tennis, but lost without winning a set. In other words, it was a tense match if not really a close one. And despite her excellent effort in Cincinnati, Sharapova was soundly beaten by Caroline Wozniacki (6-3, 6-4) at the U.S. Open. And it's not like Wozniacki went on to win the tournament.
Following her loss to Vesnina, Sharapova said, "I'm definitely not as good as I wanted to be. After the U.S. Open I wasn't able to train as much as I would've wanted to, and I feel like the last couple of weeks I've just been trying to play catch-up. My rhythm hasn't been where it should be. Obviously it's disappointing, but I've lost and won many matches in my career. I'll just have to regroup and move forward."
That's a brave attitude, but there's never been any question about Sharapova's heart. It's her game that seems wanting. She's never really found that groove; she's become unpredictable.
She said of Vesnina, "I have to give a lot of credit to my opponent. She played extremely well. She was really aggressive and hit the ball really deep and consistently. I wasn't able to do the things I do. She served extremely well and had me off-balance. It was definitely her day."
The hallmark of a great, even an aspiring-to-be-great player, is consistency, and that's what Sharapova has lacked ever since her shoulder troubles started. Her game has always been effortful, slightly wooden, effective but more of a testament to determination and competitive fitness than talent or even that wild card factor, self-regard. Sharapova needs to be careful that the game doesn't pass her by, or be prepared to accept diminished status in the event that it does.
It's a tough bind for a young player whose status may be out of sync with her degree-of-impact, but Sharapova has shown the ability to handle pressure before; she'll need to demonstrate that capacity again.
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