Sharapova, Ivanovic seeking relevance

It seems like a long time ago that Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic reigned supreme in the Californian desert, but it really wasn’t.

Sharapova, the Russian and former No. 1 won, the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells crown in 2006. Ivanovic, the Serbian and former No. 1, won in it 2008.

Much has remained the same and much has changed for two of the tour’s most compelling personalities since then. Both Sharapova and Ivanovic have continued to make millions off court in sponsor dollars, but both have ceased to be consistent title threats at the majors.

Ivanovic’s Indian Wells victory was shortly after Sharapova had buried her in the 2008 Australian Open final, and only three months before she won her sole Grand Slam at Roland Garros to briefly take over the No. 1 ranking. At the same Indian Wells tournament where Ivanovic made a loud statement that she was prepared for an assault at No. 1, Sharapova injured her right shoulder for the first time stretching for a forehand against Alona Bondarenko. Six months later, she had major shoulder surgery, and she hasn’t won a Grand Slam event or WTA Premier Mandatory title since then.

On Saturday at Indian Wells, the 23-year-old Sharapova won her first match since she was dusted by Andrea Petkovic at the Australian Open in a nearly three-hour sweat fest over Anabel Medina Garrigues 7-5, 6-7, 6-1. She fought her heart out as always, was devastating off the ground at times, whipped her returns and. for the most part, kept charging forward. But she also looked rusty, out of position, late to shots she should have taken care of and afraid of the net.

Essentially, Sharapova is back to where she was at this time last year, coming off a bad Aussie Open with few matches under her belt and looking to shake off the rust.

She was sick for a good part of February with a virus she caught in Moscow that inhibited her training. She trained hard during the past two weeks with her new racket and new coach, Thomas Hogstedt, but even the three-time Grand Slam tournament champion admits that she cannot even spend a millisecond thinking she is ready to come in and tear the tour up, not when she hasn’t had a good stretch since last August, when she reached the finals of Stanford and Cincinnati and suffered tough losses to Victoria Azarenka and Kim Clijsters. After that, she went into the U.S. Open and was unable to put down the vulnerable No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki. She hasn’t had a good tournament since.

"I know I can produce good results," the 18th-ranked Sharapova said. "I wouldn’t be out on the court, I wouldn’t be practicing, I wouldn’t be trying. But I’m pretty realistic in terms of knowing that I’m not just going to come out of nowhere and all of a sudden feel like everything is well and I’m winning matches easily. I’m not gonna have any hiccups in the matches and not go through tough opponents. It’s not real, and I know that I’ll have to lose a few matches in order to get back. The only thing I really want is that consistency of being healthy, but also being able to play a lot. I really miss competing and [playing] matches."

Sharapova, a Los Angeles resident is quite happy off court, as she’s now engaged to New Jersey Nets guard Sasha Vujacic and feels settled in her off-court life. Vujacic was buried on LA Lakers coach Phil Jackson’s bench and. according to Sharapova. was frustrated with his lack of playing time. So even though he was traded across country to another team away from her home base, she was thrilled for him.

"To be honest, maybe we have skipped a few days where we could have seen each other, but it’s so much more worth it that he’s playing and that the whole organization has been great to him," she said.

"He loves all his teammates. He’s a happy kid. It’s nice to see. No matter how they’re doing, how they’re playing, it seems like they’re sticking together and trying to work things out and win games and play as a team. But I was really happy because he also, deep down inside, wanted that, as well. He wanted to have the opportunity to play a lot."

While Sharapova is playing the supportive fiancée, the single. 23-year-old Ivanovic is playing the strong, independent woman, currently free of a coach as she dismissed her last one shortly after the Aussie Open.

Ivanovic’s meltdown as prime-time player came right around the same time that Sharapova was off the tour, when she injured her thumb at 2008 Wimbledon, began to adjust her strokes and essentially went into a three-year tailspin. There were times when she flashed her lethal form, but there were more occasions when she couldn’t keep a ball in the court, changed coaches, strategies and techniques. She’s a funny, intelligent, introspective person, but she’ prone to being flighty in her decision-making. Moreover, she can be impatient with her lack of progress and become anxious when things aren’t going well.

It wasn’t until the end of last year when Ivanovic began to catch fire again, winning Linz and Bali, but she has started this year slowly (partly because of an abdominal injury) and once again is coach-less as yet another experiment with a new one — this time Victoria Azarenka’s ex-coach Antonio Van Grichen — went awry after only two months. She has decided to blaze her own path for a bit, consulting with Adidas coach Darren Cahill but traveling only with her hitting partner, Olivier Morel, and her personal trainer, Marija Lojanica, whom she has known since childhood.

With another childhood friend, Novak Djokovic, in attendance, Ivanovic powered past Kimiko Date-Krumm 6-4, 6-2 in the second round of Indian Wells. Even though her toss still sometimes goes off, she served fairly well, dominated a number of rallies with her forehand, mixed it up to keep the 40-year-old Japanese guessing and composed herself even though she later admitted she felt pressure because, "Djokovic won Australian Open and I had to play for him."

Like with Sharapova, it’s impossible to project too far out with Ivanovic at Indian Wells. She did catch a break when her next foe, Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova upset 12th-seed Petra Kvitova, but until she actually begins to string wins together again and shows that she has enough confidence to impose herself against elite players, it would be foolhardy to say she’s a title threat.

She knows that, so before the world starts tossing her bouquets of red roses again, she actually needs to earn her place on the big stage.

These days, as it goes with Maria, it seems to go the same with Ana.

"I’ve been working a lot, to get back, to be fit and to get continuity and consistency," Ivanovic said. "It’s been gone for a while, and I really want to try and make it work. I just can’t expect myself to go out there and win every event I play. Just try to set a good pace for myself and try to work hard for each game at the time and see how far I can go and not think I’m gonna win everything, because it’s a process."