Does Maria Sharapova Still Have The Stomach For a Comeback?

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Maria Sharapova

In one sense, it was unsurprising that Maria Sharapova succumbed so meekly to Simona Halep at the China Open, losing 6-2, 6-2 in just over an hour, to give the Romanian her first ever victory over the Russian. Both of Sharapova’s previous matches in Beijing, against Latvia’s Anastasija Sevastova and her fellow Russian Ekaterina Makarova, had gone to three sets and collectively they lasted more than five hours, leaving her physically drained against Halep. Nevertheless, her most recent defeat does prompt questions about her return after her drugs ban, in particular whether she will ever make a true comeback and reach the Major-winning heights that she rose to before the ban.

For Halep, beating Sharapova removed a significantly large monkey from her back. She had never beaten Sharapova before, a run that included losing to her in the 2014 French Open final and, most recently, going down to her again in the first round at this year’s US Open in August. That victory had seemed to indicate that Sharapova was finally on the way back towards the summit of the women’s game, especially when it was backed up by two more wins – all, controversially, achieved on the New York show courts, as Caroline Wozniacki and others pointed out. Eventually, however, fatigue and lack of match play caught up with her and she finally lost in the fourth round to Sevastova.
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Sharapova’s brief winning run at the US Open was by far her most impressive achievement since she returned to WTA Tour in the spring, especially at the Majors. Having been denied a wild card to compete in Paris and then having withdrawn from Wimbledon qualifying because of a thigh injury, she had failed even to reach a Grand Slam event, let alone perform in it. However, under the bright lights in New York she seemed to respond to the attention she received (and even the controversy she generated) by playing extremely impressively and reaching the Fourth Round.

Maria Sharapova well out of WTA Tour Finals picture

As the events this week at the China Open have showed, it may well be harder for Maria Sharapova to continue her comeback in the relative shadows of the Asian autumn events. Where she flourished on the New York show courts, she has somewhat floundered in Beijing, and that trend may well continue in the remaining events on the Tour’s Asian swing. And of course, as Sharapova is still ranked outside the world’s top 100, she has no chance at all of making Singapore and the WTA Tour Finals, the glamorous season-ending event that she has won once and been runner-up in twice.
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That sole WTA Tour Finals win came in 2004, Sharapova’s breakthrough year, when she followed up her incredible Wimbledon win against Serena Williams with another win against her American rival in Los Angeles (where the Tour Finals event was staged then). Of course, since then Sharapova has failed to beat Williams even once, which, prior to the drugs ban, constituted the major question mark about her career.

If she could not beat Williams again in the following decade, she could beat seemingly every other woman on tour, enabling her to complete the career Grand Slam and even to win the French Open (which is played, of course, on her worst surface) twice. However, since her comeback from the drugs ban earlier this year, she has been unable to get anywhere near those lofty heights and six months or so into her return to action it is legitimate to ask whether she ever will again.
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Of course, the persistent injury problems that have plagued Maria Sharapova this year have hardly helped. They are probably the inevitable consequence of, one, the ageing process and, two, her lack of competitive tennis in the previous 12 months. As has been demonstrated by many great female and male players in the past, perhaps most notably by Monica Seles in the mid-‘90s when she had to take two years off after being stabbed by a Steffi Graf fanatic, it is never easy to return after a long lay-off, whatever the reason for that lay-off may be.

Does Maria Sharapova Still Have The Stomach For a Comeback?

However, there may be a deeper problem for Sharapova to resolve. The real question is whether she still possesses the single most important attribute for any sportsman or woman – the hunger, or appetite, to play. It may seem counter-intuitive to ask that question of Sharapova who, for all her film-star looks and apparently endless endorsements, has always been one of the fiercest competitors on the women’s tour. Nevertheless, she would not be human if she did not wonder at some point whether it is worth pursuing a comeback at all, given the difficulties she is experiencing on court and the controversy she continues to generate, both on and off court.
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For the millionairess Sharapova of 2017, perhaps the best route back to the top is to recapture something of the spirit of the unknown Sharapova of 2004. That year, she not only won Wimbledon and the WTA Tour Finals, beating the great Serena on both occasions, but she also won the hearts and minds of millions of tennis fans around the world with her sheer fighting spirit and unwillingness to give in. She has never technically been the greatest female tennis player (her serving motion, in particular, has always been problematic, partly because of the shoulder problems she suffered early in her career), but no-one could ever question her desire to compete and to win.

Has Maria Sharapova alienated too many fans?

In the years since 2004 she has alienated many of those millions of fans, as she seemed to lose her youthful love of the game and appeared to replace it with a hard-headed, perhaps even hard-hearted, attitude to the game and the commercial opportunities that it provided her with. Her “Sugarpova” brand of sweets was bad enough, given that it seemed inappropriate for a professional athlete to be promoting sugar consumption among her fans, but the drugs ban was far worse. And perhaps worst of all has been her apparent lack of contrition for taking a banned substance in the first place, behaviour that was at best irresponsible and unprofessional and at worst plain cheating.
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As the events of the last six months have proved, it is not easy for any athlete – even the greatest of athletes, and given her Grand Slam achievements Maria Sharapova deserves to be included in that group – to return to the top level of their sport after a long lay-off. In Sharapova’s case, for all the wild cards that she receives to tournaments, she is nevertheless playing at a much lower level than she has been accustomed to and ultimately she may decide that it is just not worth all the effort and the aggravation.

If, however, she can somehow reconnect with her younger self – the rags to riches fairy-tale princess who went without her mother to America and ended up phoning her from Centre Court to inform her that she had just won Wimbledon – and perhaps finally express some regret, if not remorse, for taking a banned substance, she may yet reach the top of the game again. In the process, she might just regain the admiration of the millions of tennis fans who first fell in love with her all those years ago.

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