Back to the drawing board for Sharapova

BY foxsports • January 18, 2010

A few days ago Maria Sharapova commented that with the return of Belgians Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin and with her gradual recovery from shoulder surgery, 2010 promised to be one of the most exciting years ever in women's tennis.

At least at the Australian Open, the drama will have to go on without her. In one of the most disappointing defeats of her career, the 2008 Aussie Open champion lost 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-4 to her friend Maria Kirilenko in the first round Monday.

When it came to executing at the big moments, Sharapova was broken in the last game of the three hour and 22 minute marathon with what must have been at least her 30th forehand error. Sharapova, who is often called stunning, simply looked stunned.

“There is no gray area,” Sharapova said. “It was just up and down in many areas, and just finished at the down level.”

Sharapova came in to the match with a 3-0 record against Kirilenko and knew exactly what she had to do to win. She had to attack early, hammer away at Kirilenko’s forehand, jump on her second serve and make her feel the pressure of the occasion. In their previous matches, Kirilenko just wasn't strong enough mentally or physically to keep up.

But this time Kirilenko went on the offensive when asked to and — for the most part — delivered. Her defense was one of the reasons Sharapova ended up with a remarkable 77 unforced errors.

The three-time Grand Slam champion had 19 more winners than Kirilenko. But her opponent only committed 41 unforced errors and feasted on Sharapova's suspect second serve, winning 60 percent of those points.

Kirilenko matched Sharapova in the power department, was more consistent and played the big points tougher. Sharapova couldn't control a lead in the first set, was largely nowhere to be found when she got up on Kirilenko's serve and felt her game plan slip away.

“She's not really the type of player that makes you feel that good,” Sharapova said. “She changes the pace a lot. She just has a little bit of a different type of game. Today she was just able to execute many things really well.”

Sharapova only has one place to go from here: back to the drawing board. Given how well she competed when she returned from shoulder surgery last May, and given that her camp had aimed at the 2010 Australian Open as the place where she'd be able to shine, her team might have to redraw a substantial part of the map going forward.

The 22-year-old says she her surgically repaired shoulder is fully recovered and she has courageously (and with a fair amount of risk) gone back to her old service motion, junking the abbreviated one that she used last year in her comeback. Her first serve still isn't as effective as it was here back in 2008 when she literally smoked the entire field in Melbourne, but it's certainly showing signs of life.

But it’s not there yet. Neither is her ability to consistently produce accurate, powerful shots off the ground, especially in long, drawn out matches like the one against Kirilenko. If she's not dictating early and getting involved in end-to-end muscular points, she gets in trouble. Sharapova’s never been that accurate when hitting off balance shots.

If she's going to make charge at the top five again, Sharapova has to continue to do a couple of things that make her a bit uncomfortable: try and find away to become a better volleyer and more agile around the net; and attempt to mix up her repertoire from inside the baseline so she's not as predictable. On great days, she can overpower anyone, but as Kirilenko showed Monday, on her mediocre days Sharapova can be had by veteran players which no longer fear her.

“I could be disappointed, or I could just take it as it is and just go back on the court and just keep working,” Sharapova said. “I choose option two.”

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