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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Sharapova comes out fighting

Photo Titled Maria Sharapova
Maria Sharapova

With only three tournaments behind her after a nine-month absence from tennis after a shoulder operation, Maria Sharapova is upbeat and defiant about her prospects for The Championships.

Though she is not talking about the chances of a repeat of her triumph of 2004, the 22-year-old Russian stresses that her fighting qualities are what have helped her overcome a potentially career-terminating injury. And those same qualities will be the key to how well she does in a bid to recover the number one ranking she held last year.

"I've always been a fighter," she says. "If I was mentally weak I wouldn't be doing this, I'd be on some island with a nice cold pina colada. But there is no better feeling than waving to the crowd after you've won."

Though a tournament victory has so far eluded her on her comeback, Sharapova is satisfied with the progress she has made, plus the fact that the operation she underwent last October for a torn rotator cuff in the serving shoulder has, she says, apparently done the trick.

After a token doubles appearance at Indian Wells in March, Maria took a wild card into the Warsaw tournament immediately preceding Roland Garros and got to the quarter-finals, an achievement she repeated at the French Open. Then, at last week's Aegon Classic on grass at Edgbaston she went one better by reaching the semi-finals.

But is it too soon to have expectations for Wimbledon after such a long time out of tennis? "I don't know, I can't tell," was her honest assessment after her defeat by Li Na at Edgbaston. "I think this is the first time in my career I can really say I don't have any expectations. I don't know how things are going to work out because I haven't played many competitive matches yet. That's a big factor for my body and my shoulder.

"After the operation I couldn't practise for such a long time. There were three months when I didn't touch a tennis racket. That sort of thing was obviously stressful because you don't know if you're ever going to get the chance to play again."

That there remains much work to be done if Sharapova is to regain her place at the top of the women's game has been obvious since her return. In a bid to shield her shoulder from the danger of further damage she has changed her service action, which explains the flurry of double faults and the fact that a (so far) significantly less potent delivery has been regularly broken. At Roland Garros she was beaten 6-0, 6-2 by the 20th seed, Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia, and at Edgbaston she dropped serve six times against Li Na.

"After shoulder surgery I'm not going to come out and hit aces left and right. I didn't set goals for my comeback," she stressed. "I'm just grateful to be playing matches. But I wouldn't be coming back from serious injury and surgery if I didn't love competing. I believe eventually I will be better than before. I wouldn't be here otherwise."

In the months following the operation, Sharapova spent Monday to Friday of every week doing rehab in Phoenix, Arizona, before flying to spend the weekends at her home in Los Angeles. "What I had to realise from the beginning was that it was going to be a long road. There were so many times I thought 'Oh, I'll be back for Australia' or 'I'll be back in a few weeks'. But time after time it was disappointment, which is when it became a little frustrating.

"Many people think you have surgery, wake up and you're completely fine. But there was so much work still to be done. Being out of action motivated me more than anything. In my hotel room in Phoenix about 11pm I would watch a match and be so motivated I would ask them to open the gym so I could work out."

As Maria points out, she is a fighter, her presence can do nothing other than provide a huge boost to the women's field at The Championships.

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