Sunday, December 17, 2017

A decade later, Sharapova's still seeking an encore

Wimbledon remains the leafy place where Maria Sharapova became a star.

It has been 10 years since a 13th-seeded Sharapova upset former Wimbledon champion Lindsay Davenport in the semifinals and defending champion Serena Williams in the final.

"She's as competitive as anybody in the world," her occasional mentor Nick Bollettieri said of the teenage Sharapova at the time.

That has been confirmed over the seasons, the comebacks and the tight matches.

But Wimbledon, such a sunlit place for Sharapova at age 17, has gradually become a place with a dark side.

She has been upset on a regular basis. She has struggled to adjust her footwork and timing to the grass. And, despite a return trip to the final in 2011 to face Petra Kvitova, she has never won the trophy there again.

Last year, soon after losing in the second round to 131st-ranked Michelle Larcher de Brito, she found herself in a London clinic, getting platelet-rich plasma injections to try to address severe right shoulder pain.

"The day after I lost," Sharapova said.

It did not resolve the problem, and there would be many more treatments as she played just one more match the rest of the year.

It is easy to forget that period of doubt. Sharapova has won 19 of her past 20 matches, and she shrieked and battled through a series of tough three-setters to win her second French Open title.

But the concerns were real for a champion who was out nearly a year after shoulder surgery to repair two tears in her right rotator cuff in 2008.

"I'm very loose-jointed, so if changes come — changes of weather, changes of balls — I am quite sensitive to that," Sharapova said. "And I think everything just kind of piled on. Usually when that happens, we've been able to manage the pain, and I've played many matches since I've had surgery where I have some pain but been able to manage it. But it just got worse and worse."

No surgery would be required this time, just rest, rehabilitation and another long layoff, which she used to hire three new team members: Dutch coach Sven Groeneveld, German hitting coach Dieter Kindlmann and French physical therapist Jerome Bianchi, who once helped keep Amelie Mauresmo healthy.

Those three men were locked in a celebratory embrace after Sharapova held off Simona Halep in the French Open final, and Sharapova soon joined them in the stands.

"When we all got together and little by little started working together, I realized that there was really good energy," she said. "It's like everyone worked together, and this is such a huge piece of the puzzle as a professional athlete. You are the one competing, but the team atmosphere is so important."

The question now is whether Sharapova's new teammates can help her win another Wimbledon at a time when Williams, still without a Grand Slam singles title this year, should not be short on power or desire.


Today's key matches

Men: Novak Djokovic (1) vs. Andrey Golubev; Andy Murray (3) vs. David Goffin; Tomas Berdych (6) vs. Victor Hanescu; David Ferrer (7) vs. Pablo Carreno Busta; Grigor Dimitrov (11) vs. Ryan Harrison; Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (14) vs. Jurgen Melzer

Women: Li Na (2) vs. Paula Kania; Agnieszka Radwanska (4) vs. Andreea Mitu; Petra Kvitova (6) vs. Andrea Hlavackova; Victoria Azarenka (8) vs. Mirjana Lucic-Baroni; Sam Stosur (17) vs. Yanina Wickmayer; Venus Williams (30) vs. Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor

TV: 7 a.m., ESPN; 11:30 a.m., ESPNNEWS; 2 p.m., ESPN2

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