WTA’s former stars try to reclaim spotlight

No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki has departed the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, her strong body having finally shown signs of wear and tear, and now the more decorated women of the WTA have a chance to reclaim attention to themselves.

The 20-year-old Wozniacki essentially dominated proceedings in the Arabian desert of Dubai and Doha and then in the California desert at Indian Wells wearing down 14 of out 15 opponents. In Florida, however, after nearly three months of non-stop play, she couldn’t get her legs moving or shots falling in a 7-5, 3-6, 6-3 loss to the dancing German Andrea Petkovic.

So perhaps now, while the door is open, three-times Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova can show that she actually can come back to prominence and will be a serious threat at the majors this summer. Late Tuesday evening, Sharapova almost tore her shoulder off in overcoming Romanian Alexandra Dulgheru 3-6, 7-6, 7-6 (5) needing nearly 3-1/2 hours to do so.

Opportunities also abounded for former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic, who has been putting the pieces of her shattered game back together, including the hiring of former ATP player Andrei Pavel as her coach. She took a 4-2 lead into the third set against Petkovic, but then the Serbian began to play way too tentative and the German took it to her in a 2-6 6-2 6-4 upset.

Another Serbian, former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic, who is now coachless, is more determined to call her own shots in seizing control of her future. In the past two months she has let go of her coach and trainer, feeling that neither understood where her game should be going. For a people-person such as Ivanovic, that’s a tough call but at least she decided to begin taking advice again from the Adidas staff, which includes Andre Agassi’s former coach and trainer coach Darren Cahill and trainer Gil Reyes. In just a couple of weeks of consultation, she has clearly made progress.

However, while Reyes can encourage her to dig deeper and Cahill can design the right strategies, they cannot be on court with her and help her close out matches. Consequently, she nearly pulled off one of the greatest victories in her career up 7-6(4), 3-6, 5-1 over four times Grand Slam champion Kim Clijsters, but then could not cash in on five match points and went down 7-6(5). in the final set. She cried, but also showed some resiliency because if the 2008 French Open champion keeps progressing, she should be able to do major damage on clay, provided that she pockets major opportunities rather than lets them slip away.

"It is very hard to take, you should see my racket," said Ivanovic. "I really feel like I haven’t done much wrong. I had my opportunities, and she played some really good tennis. I stayed with her and I created the opportunities for myself but I am just very disappointed to lose like that."

Even though her spotty play at the majors is an indication she lacks maturity, Wozniacki has been rock-solid outside of the Grand Slams and is the only young player on tour who can be called a substantial threat to grab one before the year is out. Two of her best friends, No. 8 Victoria Azarenka and No. 14 Agnieszka Radwanska are both talented, but neither has shown the Dane’s consistency or mental toughness. Another five young players in the top 30 — Petra Kvitova, Dominica Cibulkova, Yanina Wickmayer, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Alisa Kleybanova — have shown flashes of brilliance but have too often faltered under the bright lights.

But at least in Miami, Azarenka and Radwanska have kept their heads up and both will be contesting quarterfinals Wednesday — Azarenka against another former No. 1 Kim Clijsters and Radwanska against Wimbledon finalist Vera Zvonareva.

With No. 4 Francesca Schiavone, No. 5 Samantha Stosur and No. 6 Na Li, having been sporadic at best in 2011, the only veteran star that can be counted on when she’s motivated is No. 2 Clijsters, who is the de facto No. 1 having won the last two majors and the 2011 WTA Championships, but even she is displaying a bit of disinterest.

Since the Australian Open, when Clijsters showed the world just how dominant she could be by winning her fourth Grand Slam title, she has begun to grow irritated that she’s being forced to play too heavy a schedule. She played below her level in a loss to Kvitova in the Paris Indoors final and then bowed out of Indian Wells with a shoulder injury. Clijsters has been contending with the injury all year, but after she retired against Marion Bartoli, she said that if it was up to her she would not have played the Indian Wells and Miami swing (both are mandatory tournaments) because she would rather be at home with her daughter. Not only could Clijsters give a hoot about the No. 1 ranking anymore, but also she said that she’s rather be ranked outside of the top 20 and not have so many obligations. Then upon arrival in Miami, she added that she would not play in Asia this fall due to fears of the radiation leaks coming from the Japan’s nuclear reactors. That’s completely understandable, but also indicates that her love of the competition may be fleeting.

However, as much she says there are days when she wants to be at home mothering, once she gets on court and is involved in the heat of the battle, the tigress comes out and Clijsters bares her teeth and goes for the kill. She’ll face a more fresh-legged Azarenka in the quarterfinals Wednesday in a match of two former Miami champions where Clijsters can continue to show off her Hall-of-Fame credentials and the ball-bashing Azarenka can make good on her promise she’s becoming more of a thinking player.

Sharapova hasn’t traditionally been a great bounce-back player after contesting marathon matches, but if anything positive came out all the time she was forced to take off due to shoulder surgery, it’s that she spent a huge amount of time working on her aerobic capacity, which, outside of her vast experience, was one of the main reasons she was able to survive Dulgheru as the power of her shots decreased with every passing minute once the match went behind two hours.

Sharapova is just 23 but has been playing tennis as long as she can remember, and it’s taken a toll on her body. Since her October 2008 shoulder surgery, she has only won two small events, and while she’s played most of the elite players tough, she’s not knocking their visors off like she did in winning the 2008 Australian Open.

Sharapova looked very good last summer, but then hit the skids in the fall and at the start of the year. Due to her lack of substantial progress, she made a major coaching change at the start of this year, parting with her good friend Michael Joyce and hiring Swede Thomas Hogstedt, who is trying to get her to play relentless, first-strike tennis in order to keep the rallies short and prevent her faster opponents from yanking her around. She played well early on at Indian Wells until Wozniacki made her run after too many balls, and she fell quickly. In Miami, she was on the ball early and destroyed Stosur, but on a humid evening against Dulgheru, was forced to hit ball after ball without changing the pace up enough.

But the Russian has been very good at keeping her head down for most of her career. Thursday she will face Petkovic, the same woman who shockingly pummeled Sharapova her at the Aussie Open, so revenge will surely be on her mind.

Given that Sharapova’s serve is still wildly inconsistent, it’s hard for her to dictate from the first ball in every point, and if she doesn’t commit to at least occasionally coming into net and closing points out more, as well as defending and not going for crazy shots, losses like the latest to Wozniacki and Petkovic could come in waves.

Like Ivanovic and Jankovic who got ahead of themselves predicting their future and had the ice cold water of reality (immense pressure equals losses), Sharapova has been downplaying her chances at winning Grand Slam titles in the short term. She believes that getting a lot of matches in will make her path easier, because her shot selection will become more natural. But getting in more matches means winning more matches and the only way she’s going to do that is to discover what exactly she can and cannot do post shoulder surgery.

What she has always done is fight like a caged animal, which is why despite up and down play she’s been able to reach the semifinals of Indian Wells and Miami back to back. But if she is to be a formidable top 5 player again she must also improve the quality of her tennis, because as Ivanovic and Jankovic found out, the net can still catch your shots if you aim too low.

The only person who will walk away from Miami entirely pleased is the woman who ends up winning the tournament. But win or lose, all the former No. 1s can take some positives out of the tournament if they recall how at times they played the right way. None of them can afford to regress, because next week, the clay court season begins and Wozniacki will be waiting for them, ready to run them into the ground.