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Sunday, January 17, 2010
Sharapova's comeback hits a wall

For a while it looked like Maria Sharapova was going to do it again.

Never averse to pulling off comebacks, Sharapova trailed one of her good friends on the tour, the mentally suspect Maria Kirilenko, 5-2 in the third set in the opening match on Center Court at the Australian Open. Rain meant the roof was closed on Rod Laver Arena, as the usually steamy Aussie summer temporarily turned nasty.

Sharapova held in a nervy eighth game to draw closer, and order appeared restored when the three-time Grand Slam champ got back on serve.

At this point, many must have been harkening back to the 2007 French Open, when Sharapova saved two match points to overcome tricky lefty Patty Schnyder 9-7 in the fourth round, or earlier that year in Melbourne, when the sport's golden girl edged Camille Pin in the first round 9-7 in the third set, at one juncture two points away from defeat. Schnyder quipped after her loss that she was a little champion and Sharapova a big one.

But there was no escape Monday, and Kirilenko didn't fold. Sharapova's 11th double fault opened the 10th game and Kirilenko went on to win 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-4 in an extended 3 hours, 22 minutes. Kirilenko told someone to be quiet when it concluded, though no one was really sure who. Looking back, Sharapova probably blew it in the first set, when she led 4-2 and had chances to break for 5-2. She admitted as much in her postmatch news conference when asked whether lack of match practice cost her.

"I mean, I don't really know what match practice has to do with being up 4-2, 15-40 and not making a second-serve return," a composed Sharapova said.

This one's gotta hurt.

Many, this author included, thought Sharapova, seeded 14th but a bigger threat than that, couldn't lose this one and was destined for a deep run into the second week. Sharapova led their head-to-heads 2-1, although Kirilenko's only victory came when her opponent retired in Beijing five long years ago.

Peeking at the draw, Sharapova landed in the bottom half and cushy bottom quarter, alongside the likes of ailing world No. 2 Dinara Safina and slumping world No. 8 Jelena Jankovic. A Sharapova versus Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin or Elena Dementieva semifinal was the most likely scenario. Things thus got a little easier for Safina, a winner earlier on Day 1.

Sharapova admitted this month she was healthy for the first time since the start of 2008, well before a shoulder injury prompted surgery and a new service motion, which has since been reversed. But the double faults, which piled up last summer, haven't gone away. That's worrisome. And as we've seen with fellow Russians Dementieva and Nikolay Davydenko, it can take a while to iron out the service kinks.

"Actually, I thought I served pretty big," she said. "I don't think that was the reason I lost the match today. I served big when I had to. I served big second serves. You know, I'm OK with making mistakes when I'm going after it, trying to control the situation instead of being passive.

"There's still a lot to improve. You know, there's a lot of consistency that I'll have to add to it."

There's no doubting Sharapova, as competitive and hard working as they come on tour, will work even harder once the initial sting subsides. The confidence will return. Her return to old form is just gonna take a little longer.

"I could be disappointed, or I could just take it as it is and just go back on the court and keep working," Sharapova said. "I choose Option 2."