When former World No. 1 Maria Sharapova lost to Kimiko Date Krumm in Tokyo, I tweeted what was in my gut…the golden girl is done. She then lost yesterday in Beijing to Elena Vesnina and I knew it was beyond my gut, it was fact. For the record, I’m not of the camp who cheered this news, who bemoaned her loud grunts or the fact that her celebrity has outstripped her ranking of late, for God’s sake, I’m a guy!
Facts are, If she up and quit today, Maria’s had a Hall of Fame career on the courts (World No. 1, Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open titles, helping open the floodgates for Russian women’s tennis, etc.) The sad fact is that I just don’t see her contending again. I wish I had a different answer, but 2010 was the year Sharapova needed to step up, and frankly, she’s failed at every opportunity.
The key is what’s happened the last three years. We all know about the shoulder injury that wrecked her once explosive serve. Maria played most of 2008 injured due to a misdiagnosis of said injury, suffering bad losses to players who she used to own before shutting it down for about ten months. She came back in 2009, and after half a decade ranked in the top 5, Sharapova was outside the Top 100, either scared of re-injury or physically unable to play the game that won her 3 of the sport’s 4 crown jewels. In 2010, the old service motion came back and pundits universally thought she’d turn it around. They…ok, we, were mistaken. Fact is, you don’t spend two years losing matches you should win on paper and not have it affect you.
It always seemed telling that post-surgery, Papa Yuri handed over the official coaching reins to Michael Joyce. I’m sure some of that had to do with a young girl growing up and not needing dad to “protect” her anymore, but just like when Uncle Toni doesn’t show up for Rafa, Maria seems listless without Yuri’s guiding hand.
I’ve always revered Maria’s ice princess persona on the court. Cool, calm, unaffected by the score, but I’ve come to loathe it in press conferences. This is the mealy mouthed, feel good garbage that people want Serena Williams to spew when she loses. The old “my opponent was just too good,” cheerful loser BS spewed on playgrounds where 7th place finishers “win” medals. Serena knows better, she knows that a huge part of being a champion is never accepting losses. Some champs exemplify that trait by getting back on the practice court 5 minutes after a shock loss and hitting 100 of the shot that just deserted them; others by immediately citing whatever niggling injury most troubled them that day; others, like Serena, by saying how poorly they played and the starring role they played in their own demise.
From this outsider’s perspective, Maria, on the other hand, has begun accepting the losses. She may have recovered her serve (may have, the stroke is still maddeningly inconsistent), but the force of will that famously carried Sharapova from Siberia to victory at the All England Club is sadly gone, perhaps never to return.
So, here’s this fan’s wish and prescription to cure the golden girl, I want to see her break some sticks, call herself out on her poor play or get fitter than she’s ever been in her life. I want to see Maria OWN the losses and rail against them. As long as she’s accepting them, she’ll never contend again.