Who could blame Maria Sharapova for returning to the WTA Tour after a 16-month doping suspension with the mindset of a title contender? Her personal roadblock, Serena Williams, was out on maternity leave. She owned winning head-to-heads over most of the current top 20. She was returning during the clay season, on a surface that has helped cement her legacy as an all-time great. Tournament directors were offering endless wild cards in hopes of making their event the backdrop where the five-time major champion and former World No. 1 would catch fire again. Yet, a few weeks past the one-year anniversary of her comeback in Stuttgart, the stars are still trying to align for Maria Sharapova.
After a spring hardcourt season to forget, Sharapova knew she needed to change the structure of her surroundings.
“Do I want to be ranked Number 60, 70 in the world? No, I don’t,” she stated firmly. “Do I want to be losing first round? Absolutely not. That’s why I’m still here, is because I’m not satisfied with those things and because I keep looking and getting better and working on things, making adjustments, not being stubborn on things that I believe will make me better.”
To get better she turned to a former mentor, Thomas Hogstedt, who motivated and inspired her after a career-jeopardizing shoulder surgery in 2009. In her memoir, “Unstoppable,” Sharapova credited Hogstedt with bringing focus, discipline, and enhanced drills to her practices. Their partnership resulted in her first Roland Garros title. Remarkably, Sharapova also called Hogstedt one of the most challenging individuals to be around off the court. If Sharapova is willing to be uncomfortable to reach her goals again, it’s a positive start for a champion who needs to adapt.
The ultimate reality is that Sharapova has struggled to stay healthy enough to be on a tennis court. In 2018 injuries have allowed Sharapova to play only four tournaments so far. Many pundits have wondered whether the suspension would allow her various nagging injuries to heal, but maybe an alternative view was underdiscussed. Even though her body was resting, one year later she still seems to be working on regaining match fitness. Her quarterfinal run in Madrid this week has been the sharpest Sharapova has looked in 2018, but still — toward the latter stages of her last match against Kiki Bertens — Sharapova frequently played a few uncharacteristic drop shots in attempts to finish points more quickly than normal. Can she regain the stamina needed to outlast the elite counterpunchers who have risen up the ranks during her absence?
Sharapova believes she can.
“I want to be present. I want to be competing, playing well and improving, but also I want to have a good outlook on things.”
Only time will tell.