Monday, February 27, 2012
Is Sharapova the Next Kournikova?
This morning, Maria Sharapova sits at No. 2 in the world in women's professional tennis. It's a fitting position given her exceptional performance at the Australian Open, making it to the final, and her runner-up finish at the 2011 All England Lawn Tennis Championships.
Not long ago, it seemed her career may be coming quickly to an end. Suffering numerous shoulder injuries in 2008 following her third major title at the 2008 Aussie Open, Maria had hobbled through some of the 2009 season and returned fully in the 2010 season with modest success. At no time, though, did she ever look strong enough to recapture her peak performance.
Flash forward to Wimbledon of 2011. With a little luck in the draw, Sharapova finds herself standing at the door of her fourth major title against a player who had never been in a major final before, who was not as familiar with the grass as was Sharapova, who already had one title on the lawns of the AELTC. It looked like a sure win, another title for Maria.
It was, however, not to be, as Petra Kvitova handily powered her way past Sharapova in what can only be called a surprising upset. Kvitova has since proven her abilities on the WTA tour, but on that day, the title should have gone to Maria. In watching the match, it was obvious that the fiery Sharapova of old was not there. Could it be nerves?
Now to the 2012 Australian Open. Sharapova had withdrawn from the warmup tournament at Brisbane siting an injury, so her dominance in the land down under was clearly no guarantee. Sharapova carried herself well in the early rounds, and with each match, and a little luck, found herself moving quickly through the draw. Then Kvitova again, this time in the semis. Sharapova moved out quickly, and it seemed the confidence she lacked at Wimbledon the summer before was there.
Then, inexplicably, Sharapova started to play as timidly as she had at Wimbledon, and Kvitova tied the match. Digging for a little more, Sharapova pulled out the match with a third-set win. With Kvitova one of the early favorites, and with Victoria Azarenka pulling out the upset of tour veteran Kim Clijsters earlier, it seemed like Sharapova would again claim a major title and solidify her return to the top of women's tennis.
I'm not sure what it was, but Sharapova again displayed what can only be thought of as a game lacking confidence. She was lacking the confidence that a three-time major winner and tour veteran should have. Azarenka joined the ranks of winners of one of the four majors, and Sharapova became a statistic.
In reviewing the loss, it dawned on me that there was another talented Russian who displayed a similar trait at times, Ana Kournikova. The most famous women's player on the planet to never win a major title often displayed moments of shear lack of confidence at the height of her playing. Could it be that tennis' two most beautiful and talented Russians suffered from the same mental flaw?
I have always hoped that Sharapova would be a great champion, and she is. I hope that we have not seen the last of her major victories. I wonder, though, will she still have the confidence to win that last point...