by Steve Flink
The year 2007 was not the best of times for Maria Sharapova. In the final of the Australian Open, she was crushed 6-1, 6-2 by Serena Williams. She suffered on and off all year with a shoulder injury. She did not win a Grand Slam title, sliding from No. 2 in the world at the end of 2006 to No. 5 upon the conclusion of last year. But perhaps the saving grace for Sharapova in that disheartening season was her sparkling form at the season-ending Sony Ericsson Championships in Madrid, where she lost a pulsating final round skirmish to Justine Henin, pushing the world champion to 5-7, 7-5,6-3 in an epic lasting nearly three-and-a-half hours.
In any event, Sharapova headed into the 2008 Australian Open entirely resolute, and came away with the third major title of her enviable career, adding this Grand Slam championship to the majors she secured at Wimbledon (2004), and the U.S. Open (2006). Her Wimbledon and U.S. Open triumphs were remarkable pieces of business, but her work “Down Under” was the finest work she has ever done. She lost her serve only six times in seven matches, did not concede a set in the tournament, and displayed unwavering maturity and uncanny court sense. Her court coverage was better than it has ever been before. Her ball striking off both sides was nearly always masterful. And her demeanor was admirable. I have never seen her remain so composed down the stretch of a major.
She peaked in many ways during her quarterfinal with Henin, serving masterfully, lacing her ground strokes immaculately with not only immense power but also extraordinary ball control. Henin has not been beaten that soundly in a very long while. In that 6-4, 6-0 victory, Sharapova played the greatest tennis match of her career. Across the board, it was a majestic performance. She had played nearly as well when she took apart Lindsay Davenport in the second round. That kind of tennis is difficult to sustain. Sharapova defeated Jelena Jankovic with ease in the semifinals, but was not the same commanding player she had been earlier in the tournament.
In her final round meeting with No. 4 seed Ana Ivanovic, Sharapova took on a player who has come on strong over the last year. Ivanovic had routed Sharapova in the semifinals at Roland Garros in 2007 to reach her first Grand Slam tournament final, falling predictably against Henin. She then made it to the semifinals of Wimbledon before Venus Williams ushered her out of that event. She is now a player who knows her way around the latter stages of big events. Ivanovic had lost the first eight games of her semifinal against Daniela Hantuchova in Melbourne, but recouped with considerable spunk to win that match in three sets.
Despite losing 6-1, 6-2 to Sharapova in their last meeting at Madrid, Ivanovic did not seem intimidated by her illustrious adversary on this occasion. But Sharapova still burst into the lead. She held at love in her first three service games and she returned with more authority. Sharapova led 4-2, and when she served at 4-3 the match seemed firmly in her hands. But right then and there, she drifted into a precarious corner.
Recognizing that Ivanovic was stepping up the pace on her returns, Sharapova was thrown off guard. She served consecutive double faults to lose her serve. A revitalized Ivanovic sensed her chance, holding easily in the ninth game. Now Sharapova was in a bind. Serving at 4-5, she fell behind 0-30. She was two points away from losing the set, and that might well have been an irrevocable setback. Sharapova produced an excellent first serve that Ivanovic could not handle. It was 15-30. Here Ivanovic made a glaring miscalculation. She needed to make Sharapova play, but inexplicably attempted a backhand drop shot from close to the baseline. Ivanovic did not get away with that desperate tactic. The ball went into the net, and Sharapova was back to 30-30. Still rattled, Ivanovic rolled a forehand down the line well out of court for another costly unforced error, and then Sharapova came up with another unstoppable first serve.
It was 5-5, and Sharapova knew she was ascendant again. She broke for 6-5 and served out the set at love. For all practical purposes, the match was over. Ivanovic fought hard in the second set but she was always at bay as Sharapova settled into a comfortable rhythm on serve. In the second set, Sharapova won 16 of 18 points on serve; from 4-5, 0-30 in the first set she captured 24 of 26 service points. What made this all the more impressive was that Sharapova mixed up her delivery so intelligently in the title match, keeping Ivanovic off guard with clever first serve kickers and penetrating sliced second serves that were deep, biting and low. Unable to counter Sharapovas depth and pace in the rallies, Ivanovic, who stayed with the Russian until 3-3 in the second set, lost her serve twice as the No. 5 seed swept three games in a row to complete a well deserved 7-5, 6-3 triumph.
Sharapova has set herself up for the most impressive year of her career. She has never won two majors in a single season before, but she could well realize that feat in 2008. She will be hard pressed to come through at Roland Garros on clay, the surface that least suits her game. But she should have a good chance to win either Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. Henin is the consummate professional and she will be eager to reassert herself the rest of this year. But Sharapova has soared to a new level, and will wage a fierce battle for world supremacy with Henin this year.
Maria Sharapova has a lot of style, but her third Grand Slam championship triumph was much more about her substance.
Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to TennisChannel.com
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