Sharapova has sights set on U.S. Open run

Maria Sharapova returns to tournament tennis at next week’s Bank Of The West Classic in Stanford aiming for ascension.

Sidelined for the first four months of the season as she continued her rehab from a moderate rotator cuff tendon tear she sustained in April 2008, the 61st-ranked Sharapova will try to accumulate enough ranking points to secure a seeded spot for the U.S. Open, which begins on August 31st.

For much of the past year, Sharapova’s public appearances have been confined to her Canon commercials and magazine spreads. The player behind the brand says she’s eager to resume her roll as a full-time tennis player and sees the U.S. Open Series as the platform to do just that.

“(I’m looking forward to) playing matches. Going out there, playing, performing. That’s what I didn’t do,” Sharapova told the media in a press conference prior to her World TeamTennis appearance for the Newport Beach Breakers on Wednesday night.

Timing has always been a key component of Sharapova’s style, which is a form of tennis larceny. At her best, Sharapova stands on top, or a few feet behind, the baseline firing fast, flat strokes that rob opponents of response time and steal away their offensive opportunities. Regaining her timing and responding to the ebbs and flows of match play will take time that can only come from the repeated repetition tournaments provide.

“I mean, listen, it’s not that none of these tournaments are going to be tough,” Sharapova said. “I feel like a lot of the upcoming matches are going to be tough. I’m still getting the rustiness kind of away from me.”

Putting herself in a position to promote a rankings rise is a positive step for Sharapova, whose shoulder injury made her most problematic climb the one off the trainer’s table. Sharapova insists her shoulder, which forced her out of last year’s U.S. Open and prevented her from defending her Australian Open title in January, is completely healthy.

“I am 100 percent,” Sharapova says.

In an effort to strengthen the shoulder — and prevent a recurrence of the injury — Sharapova has adopted a shortened service motion. She’s replaced the traditional loop backswing on her serve with the abbreviated backswing, taking the racquet face straight up before dropping it down to launch into her serve in a shortened service motion used by Andy Roddick and Gael Monfils.

Sharapova says she spent time in Phoenix last month strengthening her shoulder and will continue the exercises throughout her career.

“(My shoulder) feels really good. After Wimbledon I went back to Phoenix and I kept working on it,” Sharapova said. “It’s not something that you just stop when it feels good. You have to keep working on it. You have to keep getting it stronger. For the rest of my career I’ll be doing shoulder exercises.”

Ultimately, the hope is the shortened service motion — combined with strengthening exercises — helps lengthen her career. Sharapova struggled with her serve at times in recent years and concedes mastering the motion is still a work in progress.

“After surgery I definitely had to shorten up my motion to make it easier on my arm. That’s something that I’m still working on and still tuning up,” Sharapova said.

A pectoral strain she sustained in 2005 curtailed Sharapova’s schedule and she’s missed tournament time in each of the past three years due to the shoulder strain. As she tunes up for her sixth career U.S. Open, it’s sometimes easy to overlook the fact Sharapova is still only 22 years old.

Sharapova believes injuries are an occupational hazard for elite professional athletes, particularly for players who turn pro at an early age.

“I started when I was very young, I started playing professionally when I was 14 or 15 years old,” Sharapova said. “At 22, you consider you’ve been playing on the Pro Tour that many years, (making a comeback) is definitely not a surprise.”

Several talented young players are on the rise, with three members of the top 10 — No. 1 Dinara Safina, No. 8 Victoria Azarenka and the ninth-ranked Caroline Wozniacki — being younger than Sharapova.

“It is a little surprising to see so many girls kind of coming out of the woodwork and they’re so many years younger than you,” Sharapova said. “You’re like, Where did the time go?”

The younger players are making their mark, but experience is still a major asset in majors. The three women who have combined to claim the last five Grand Slam titles — Venus Williams (2008 Wimbledon), Serena Williams (2008 U.S., 2009 Aussie and Wimbledon) and Svetlana Kuznetsova (2009 French) — have all been on the Tour for at least nine years.

Sharapova’s tenacity was on display in Paris in just her second tournament of the season.

Clay has never been her ideal comfort zone, but the crushed red brick surface brought out the gritty side of tennis’ glamour girl during the French Open.

PHOTOS: Best of Maria

Maria Sharapova

Photos: Get an up close and personal look at Maria Sharapova through the years with our gallery of the tennis sensation.

Then ranked 102nd, Sharapova saved two break points at 2-4 in the final set then roared back to edge 11th-seeded Nadia Petrova, 6-1, 1-6, 8-6, to reach the Roland Garros third round for the sixth straight year. Sharapova went on to reach the quarters where the quick-footed Dominika Cibulkova crushed her 6-0, 6-2.

After a trip to the Birmingham semifinals on grass, Sharapova was bounced out of Wimbledon in the second round by Gisela Dulko, another quick counter-puncher who mixed up the pace on her shots and stretched Sharapova into awkward positions on the court.

“I had my chances,” Sharapova said of her Wimbledon experience. “I played against a tough opponent on a tough day, and it just didn’t go my way. I certainly had my opportunities.”

There are top 10 players who are quicker, more versatile and possess more consistent serves, but Sharapova’s experience, her affinity for the game’s greatest stages and her competitiveness are qualities that make her a threat at every major, particularly the fast track of the U.S. Open where her flat strokes play well. The next five weeks will serve as preparation for her return to Flushing Meadows, where she won three years ago.

“I never lost faith because I knew the things I had already accomplished were way beyond what I ever dreamed of in my life,” Sharapova said. “… Obviously just getting to be able to play tennis again is an achievement in itself. Now it’s about preparing myself, forgetting about what I went through, just preparing my game, getting back into the form where I was, and even better.”

This is a condensed version of the original article. To read the full version, click here.