Maria Sharapova wasn’t the popular pick to win the Australian Open. In fact, many predicted she would be upset in the first round by Gisela Dulko given that she had not played a competitive match in three months because of a bad ankle sprain and pulled out of Brisbane on account of the same injury issue.
Facing a tough draw from start to finish, Sharapova faced every challenge head on and looked dominant, moving better than ever, serving well and hitting her groundstrokes with purpose, through the early rounds of the tournament. She avoided a quarter-final match up with Serena Williams and in the semis, avenged her loss to Petra Kvitova in the 2010 Wimbledon final to find herself in the championship match for the second time in the last three Majors.
Pitted against first time Grand Slam finalist Victoria Azarenka, the script for Sharapova’s latest title run seemed to point towards her completing one of the most courageous injury comebacks in the history of women’s tennis by adding a fourth Major crown to her resume. However, it was Azarenka who provided the final plot twist, dismantling her opponent in a lopsided match that was very reminiscent of the 2004 Wimbledon final when Sharapova out played Serena Williams in her Grand Slam final debut as a fearless 17-year-old.
Leading up to the 2011 title bout in Melbourne, much of the talk focused on whether Azarenka would be able to handle the magnitude of the occasion playing in her first Grand Slam final while little was mentioned about how Sharapova would deal with her own nerves being so close to something that she has wanted more than anything since starting rehab on her surgically repaired shoulder three years ago. The latter scenario turned out to be the more prominent storyline.
“I had a good first couple of games, and that was about it. Then she was the one that was taking the first ball and hitting it deep and aggressive. I was always the one running around like a rabbit, you know, trying to play catch up all the time,” Sharapova said her post-match press conference. “I think I just kind of, I don’t know, the switch went off.”
The question now is how will Sharapova respond to this wasted opportunity not knowing how many more chances she is going to get to taste Grand Slam glory once again. Knowing Sharapova and her drive to succeed, she will use this performance as a springboard for the rest of her season instead of dwell on what could have been had she not come out so flat at Rod Laver Arena on Saturday night. She handled the loss with dignity and grace, giving a runner-up speech that was as classy as they come.
Sharapova is playing a better, more complete game at this stage in her career as are many of her biggest rivals. The ability to turn defence into offence has become such an important part of the women’s game today which means that Sharapova’s first strike style of tennis can be better neutralized today than when she dominated her sport as a teenager. Her serve and forehand remain a liability, but things are certainly looking up for Sharapova and there is no reason not to believe there is a Grand Slam title in her future.