Friday, June 1, 2012
Maria Sharapova wasting no time
By Greg Garber ESPN.com
PARIS -- To win a Grand Slam singles title requires an extraordinary skill set and, perhaps, a bit of luck through the seven-match journey.
To win a career Grand Slam, well, that is a completely different beast.
Taking titles on the heated hard courts of Melbourne, the sticky red clay of Roland Garros, the slippery slope that is the grass at the All England Club and the swirling conditions at the U.S. National Tennis Center demands a certain diversity of game and, above all, an ability to adapt.
It's an exalted and exclusive club.
Maria Sharapova sure seems like she is in position to win her first major in four years.
Three women -- Maureen Connolly, Margaret Court and Steffi Graf -- have won four Grand Slam titles in one year. Six additional women have accomplished the feat in their careers. Serena Williams is the only active woman to own a career Grand Slam; Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have done it on the men's side.
As crazy as it sounds, Maria Sharapova, who has won three Grand Slam titles -- 10 fewer than Serena -- could join her by the time this fortnight ends.
In a match scheduled for Thursday but pushed to Friday when John Isner went all epic for the second time in two years, Sharapova beat Ayumi Morita 6-1, 6-1.
"It feel like I warmed up like 20 times for this match," Sharapova said. "You're at the courts all day, sitting, waiting around, eating, sleeping. It's like a good way to send someone into retirement."
The way she's playing, that's where all of her future opponents are headed. Sharapova has lost all of two games in two matches.
This high level contrasts sharply with the play of some other pre-tournament favorites. On Friday, No. 3 seed Agnieszka Radwanska got throttled 6-1, 6-2 by 2009 Roland Garros champion Svetlana Kuznetsova. Neither of the Williams sisters reached the third round -- Serena had been on track to meet Sharapova in the quarterfinals before losing in the first round -- and No. 1 seed Victoria Azarenka came very close to losing her first-round match.
Against Morita, Sharapova moved reasonably well for a woman who is 6-foot-2 and long-limbed. She was 6-for-6 in net approaches and even managed a few modest slides. This from the player who has described herself on clay as a "cow on ice."
"I can't tell you how many times that I have heard that phrase in the last four weeks from journalists," Sharapova said. "I will give you the standard answer. That I do occasionally still feel like it and, I'm sure, look like it, too."
Sharapova went on to say that earlier in her career she did not recover well from matches on clay and had serious doubts about believing she could play the requisite seven "tough" matches to win a title here. She would give everything in a match against Patty Schnyder or Anabel Medina Garrigues, then find her tank empty.
"I came back and I fought, but for the next match it was just like a balloon popped or something," Sharapova said. "You could tell my energy level wasn't there, wasn't moving so good. That has improved a lot and helps me mentally knowing that I don't feel like I'm saving myself too much."
A year ago, Sharapova reached the semifinals here, only to lose in straight sets to eventual champion Li Na. In 2007, she advanced to the same stage, falling to Ana Ivanovic.
This year feels different. After reaching the first three major finals of the season and losing them all, Sharapova won significant titles on the clay in Stuttgart and Rome. Next up for her is Peng Shuai of China on Saturday.
History is littered with great players who fell one title short of a career Grand Slam: among them, Justine Henin, Ivan Lendl, Monica Seles, Mats Wilander, Martina Hingis. Three notable players -- Pete Sampras, Lindsay Davenport and Boris Becker -- did not complete the matched set because they failed to win at Roland Garros.
Sharapova does not want to be part of that dubious group. Azarenka, Petra Kvitova and Li Na are probably her greatest threats here in Paris.
Sharapova won her first major at age 17 at Wimbledon. Two years later, the Russian won the 2006 U.S. Open at 19. No teenage woman has won a Slam title since. When Sharapova won the 2008 Australian Open at the age of 20, her chances for a career Grand Slam looked good. But then time and a serious shoulder injury intervened, and she found herself "starting from scratch."
At 25, she has a reasonable chance to complete the cycle.
"Well, if I didn't have any Grand Slams, it would mean a lot to win on its own," Sharapova said when asked what it would mean to win here. "I don't need all the other things, if it's the one I haven't won or it's the one I need to win. I mean, such a big event for us and an important one, and, yeah, one that I've always wanted to be a champion at.
"It's still a goal of mine and something I look forward to. But not because it's not the one I haven't won, but because it's Roland Garros and you want to win it."