Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Why Maria Sharapova won’t settle for mediocrity

It was an unflattering 2-6, 2-6 score line, and just like that, Simona Halep had beaten Maria Sharapova for the first time in eight matches. The prequarterfinal exit at the China Open last week was yet another underwhelming result for the five-time Grand Slam champion since her return from a doping ban. Sharapova has now lost 5 of 15 matches on her comeback trail and continues to languish outside the top-100 in the rankings. She in fact needed a wild card to play in China.
It has undoubtedly been a stumbling return for the former world No. 1 after a 15-month hiatus. In her first tournament back, in Stuttgart in April, where the organisers bent over backwards to open the door for her to compete, Sharapova constructed a run of three wins, all in straight sets, before succumbing in a tight three-setter to Kristina Mladenovic of France in the semifinal. The early signs suggested a smooth passage back among the elite would only be a matter of time.
However, subsequent results haven’t been quite as impressive. Muscle and arm injuries have got in the way too, forcing her out in the qualifying stages at Wimbledon and a couple of hard court events. At the US Open, her first major tournament since being restored to the circuit, Sharapova fought her way into the fourth round, including a first round win over Halep, before being waylaid by Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia. A month later in China, she was able to get one win under her belt, before being overwhelmed by Halep.
“I just want to play matches,” Sharapova had said when asked what her goals were for the remainder of the year after she was beaten at the US Open. “There’s no secret recipe to that. You just have to go and figure it out, whether you’re ahead in a match or behind in a match. No one’s going to teach you that. No one’s going to bring you that. It all comes in that moment, in that circumstance.”
Even as Sharapova seeks to rediscover the ferocity and consistency of shotmaking that defined her in her pomp, she continues to be one of the sport’s biggest drawing cards. In China, she was greeted by swooning fans, eager to catch a glimpse of her, placing her alongside Rafael Nadal as the most keenly followed players at the event.
In a gesture that has gained enormous traction, Sharapova also promised all profits till the end of the year from Sugarpova.com, her line of premium gummy candies, will go to a fund set up by fellow pro Monica Puig to help with hurricane relief on the island of Puerto Rico. Over the last few months, Sharapova has faced barbs from other players, even being branded a “cheater” by Canadian Eugenie Bouchard. Some of that hostility will perhaps soften as she shares in the week-in-week-out routine of the modern game with them.
However, beyond noble gestures and the unquestioned adoration of fans, is a hard as nails competitor. It is certain that Sharapova won’t settle for mediocrity and will jostle relentlessly for her share of titles. Having turned 30 this year, Sharapova will know that on a circuit bristling with sparkling, young players, she will run into stern challengers at every step. She is unperturbed at the prospect.
“I can take a lot of examples from champions that are still playing, competing, and doing incredibly well, and that’s inspiring,” she said. “But also, personally, what I’m able to do with my body, when I’m training, when I’m competing. Just never really thought that I’d have that capacity.”
Along with the expected return of Serena Williams after giving birth, Sharapova’s quest to rise again will be a fascinating storyline in the coming months. “As long as I have the desire, I’ll be there,” she insists. One of modern sport’s most compelling athletes isn’t done and dusted. Not just yet.

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