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Wednesday, January 9, 2013
Major challenges for Sharapova in Oz

By Richard Pagliaro

Maria Sharapova indulged her sweet tooth in launching her signature candy line, Sugarpova, before the 2012 U.S. Open. The player behind the brand will enter next week's Australian Open with more than maintaining a sugar high on her mind.

The second-ranked Russian withdrew from last week's Brisbane International to rest her injured right collarbone that had prevented her from serving and hitting overheads in practice.

"I still have quite a bit of time to prepare for Australia. I'm on the right track, been training really well, so I just don't want to jeopardize what I've gained in the offseason so far," Sharapova said after withdrawing. "I just have to make a smart move here."

She said she pulled out of Brisbane purely as a precautionary measure and doesn't expect injury-induced inactivity to hurt her hopes of Melbourne success. But consider the fact she hasn't played a match since suffering her ninth straight loss to Serena Williams at the WTA Championships in October and owns a combined 7-17 record against the two Australian Open favorites -- five-time champion Serena and defending champion Victoria Azarenka -- and a Sharapova return trip to the final may sound as realistic as the thought of Oompa-Loompas serving as linesmen in Oz.

Her injury, which comes less than four years after she underwent shoulder surgery to repair a tear in her rotator cuff, has limited her ability to address her serve, which can be the most suspect shot in her powerful arsenal.

Here are some of the major challenges the reigning Roland Garros champion faces gaining traction in Melbourne:

Match Play: Sharapova did not play a tuneup tournament before the 2010 Australian Open and flatlined in the first round, falling to former doubles partner Maria Kirilenko and suffering her first Grand Slam opening-round exit since the 2003 French Open.

Serve and Smash: Sharapova's serve has let her down at times versus Vika and Serena. Watch closely and you'll see she routinely eschews overheads, perhaps out of concern for her surgically repaired shoulder, in favor of swing volleys. Her collarbone injury prevented her from strengthening those shots with coach Thomas Hogstedt, which could cost her.

Shell Shock: Serena hasn't just beaten Sharapova, she's beaten her up in their recent matches. The three-time Australian Open finalist has not taken a set from Williams in four years and could bear the competitive scars of the humbling 6-0, 6-1 thrashing she absorbed in last summer's Olympic gold-medal match.

Mobility: Sharapova's movement doesn't exactly conjure comparisons to Evonne Goolagong in her prime, and though she has worked to refine her footwork, the sometimes extreme conditions in Melbourne -- scorching heat and whipping winds -- can make that part of her game even more vulnerable.

Predictability: Though she won at Roland Garros in June to complete the career Grand Slam, the reality is that Sharapova lacks a Plan B when her fast, flat drives aren't falling between the lines. She is often averse to changing up the spins and speeds of her shots, seldom plays the slice and, although she can hit the kick serve, tends to predictably play flat, providing little margin for error, especially in windy conditions.

Before you dismiss Sharapova's shot at reclaiming the Melbourne major, though, consider these assets she brings to Australia:

Past Success: The 2008 Australian Open champion has reached the final in three of her past five trips to Melbourne, and her five career semifinal appearances are the most she has made at any one major. Sharapova did not play a tuneup tournament before the 2008 Oz Open but still blew through the field to take the title without surrendering a set, sweeping former No. 1 Lindsay Davenport and four top 11-ranked players -- Elena Dementieva, Justine Henin, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic -- in the process.

Toughness: Though she has battled injuries in recent years, when healthy, Sharapova is one of the toughest fighters in tennis. She sported a 14-1 record in three-setters last year, with her lone three-set loss coming to Azarenka in the U.S. Open semifinals.

First-Strike Prowess: The 6-foot-2 Sharapova remains one of the hardest hitters in the game, capable of detonating points with her flat baseline blasts. Her ability to shorten points, particularly off her vicious returns, can help her shorten points and preserve her strength for later rounds.

Clarity: Sharapova's ability to impose her strength on a match is central to her problem-solving skill. She understands defense is not her forte, so she tries to take the offensive from the first strike. Her ability to take the ball early, control the center of the court and dictate play makes Sharapova a threat against most.

Consistency: When it comes to recent majors, Sharapova doesn't melt down. She has reached at least the semifinals in five of her past seven Grand Slam events and has a habit of peaking for the premier events.

"I've have never been one to play a lot of tournaments because I don't think I physically can perform well at all of them if I do have a schedule with a lot of tournaments," Sharapova said. "So my philosophy has always been building around the ones that are most important me and trying to peak at those. Maybe not going into a tournament with as many matches as others would prefer but knowing that I'm healthy, that I'm ready."

It's tough to imagine Sharapova stopping Serena or Vika, but if the draw breaks her way, don't be surprised to see her still standing in the final weekend.