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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Shoulder to blame? Maria has problems to solve

Photo Titled Sharapova stretched to the limit

Maria Sharapova is forced to stretch during her second round defeat to Gisela Dulko

You had to wonder what Maria Sharapova was up to. Was this a double bluff? Or was the 2004 winner really baring her soul to her adoring public? When she told everyone to look elsewhere for the Wimbledon winner, should we have believed her?

The answer, it transpired, was “yes”. Oh, my, yes. Sharapova, who announced at the start of the tournament that she was not a contender for the title, was bundled out in the second round by Gisela Dulko 6-2, 3-6, 6-4. We would, indeed, have to look elsewhere for this year’s champion.

After two years of recurring problems, Sharapova finally gave in and had surgery to repair the damage to the rotator cuff in October. There then followed months of physio and rehab before she was allowed back to work in the middle of May.

After so long thinking and worrying about the injury, now she cannot stop. To put it bluntly: she cannot get her shoulder out of her head – and that doesn’t half make playing tennis difficult.

“It's funny because sometimes I'll be in the middle of the match and I'll find myself thinking about the progression of the shoulder, how it's feeling,” she said. “The shoulder has just been the focus in so many areas on a daily basis for the last couple of years. I think it's also just a matter of forgetting about it and just playing.”

If only Dulko could have just forgotten about Sharapova and just played. In two previous matches against the Russian, she had won just three games and yet in less than an hour she had trebled that tally and led the former champion 6-2, 3-0.

And that was when she thought “Cor, lumme – I’m beating Shazza on Centre Court”, at which point she promptly stopped beating Shazza and lost the next seven games on the trot.

Sharapova may not think she is a contender for the title this year but she is certainly nobody’s pushover either. There is a competitive fire that burns in her that no amount of rehab, liniment and frustration can quell.

Give that woman a challenge and she will fight tooth and nail to meet it. And taking on the world No. 45 with a duff shoulder and next to no match practice is just the sort of test she can get her teeth into.

As the third set progressed there were nerves, errors and a warning from the umpire (Sharapova was taking too long between points) as the Russian gritted her teeth and went for the win while Dulko gritted her teeth and tried to think about anything other than winning.

Like all real fighters, Sharapova can smell fear in the air. Winning the match may have been beyond her but she was going to make Dulko work for it. And you never know, maybe the Argentine might get a bit tight and blow her chances.

Sure enough, it took Dulko five match points to close it out – some of them went begging thanks to her own failings, some of them escaped her due to Sharapova’s thumping returns and – sometimes – delicate touch.

But Dulko somehow kept her pulse rate down to treble figures, remembered to breathe and as the 2004 champion sent her final shot over the baseline, she was through to the third round.

With only 14 matches to her name this year coming into the second round, there were far too many rough edges to Sharapova’s game for her to stand any chance of making real progress.

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