Maria Sharapova’s legacy on the line
Of all the top women's tennis players who can't beat Serena Williams when she's on her game -- and that would pretty much include, well, everybody -- Maria Sharapova has always been the one we expected to forge a real rivalry with arguably the game's all-time greatest.
Strange -- because she has lost 14 straight matches to Williams, is coming back from her second serious shoulder injury and is on her third coach in the past year -- but Sharapova still seems like the best candidate.
Is it still necessary to explain why this needs to happen for the good of the game, and ideally sometime before Williams, at 32, ages beyond the rivalry zone?
"I don't think Maria thinks about Serena as much as everybody thinks she does, I really don't. She's not that type of person," said Sharapova's agent and longtime friend Max Eisenbud. "She's just trying to get better like everyone else."
And that makes sense, certainly. But Sharapova, 26, might want to begin obsessing before she becomes known as one of the greatest players in the game who captured four Grand Slam titles, but was just another in the pack who couldn't beat Williams in her prime.
"If anything, it should serve as a carrot for Maria, so it's something to strive for," Martina Navratilova said. "I liken it to when I had my rivalry with Chris [Evert]. She was No. 1, so I knew, 'I have to start working harder to beat her,' but at the same time I knew, 'If I do what I do best, I will beat Chris.' I'm not sure how much of that belief Maria has, and that can get you down. But Maria also has a real warrior attitude."
Sharapova, who has been to eight Grand Slam finals and last held the No. 1 ranking for four weeks in the summer of 2012, certainly has the track record to back it up. And beating Williams, then a two-time defending champion, in the 2004 Wimbledon final when Sharapova was a mere 17 years old, was a good start.
Though Sharapova's shoulder problems made 2013 disappointing -- losing in the second round at Wimbledon to Michelle Larcher de Brito, dropping out of the US Open and not winning another match the rest of the year -- she still finished 37-7, made it to the finals of the French Open (losing to Williams) and is ranked No. 3 in the world going into the Australian Open, beginning Monday.
Sharapova insisted in a recent interview that she is undaunted by her injury.
"I've been there in much tougher times, and I came back and I got through it," she told the New York Times. "I know this is far from as serious as it was before, so that's a huge thing."
Granted, Williams is showing no signs of slowing down after a 2013 in which she won the French and US Opens as well as the year-end WTA Championships. But Sharapova, who is 2-15 all time against Williams with her last win coming in 2004, should benefit from fresh legs and a fresh start with coach Sven Groeneveld.
"She's been on tour a long time, she's been through a lot of different things, different experiences," Eisenbud said. "She had a little anxiety on the coaching situation and since that's settled and her shoulder is feeling better, all those things make her feel good."
Sharapova began 2013 being coached by Thomas Hogstedt, who Eisenbud said left for family issues, and then spent exactly one match in August under the guidance of Jimmy Connors.
"She's not one who changes coaches much -- two or three her whole career," Eisenbud said. "When Thomas left, it was unexpected, and her shoulder was in such bad shape after that. Because it was Jimmy Connors, people wanted to make it a bigger deal than it was. But it was just a really, really bad spot and nobody could have thrived."
Eisenbud said Groeneveld's calmer approach is a "refreshing" change for Sharapova at this point in her career. "It's a right-time, right-place scenario," he said.
Looking back, Eisenbud said Sharapova was in pain at the French and "for sure" should not have played Wimbledon.
"She's just not a complainer; it's part of sports and she didn't want to talk about it," he said. "She's not a big fan of players who always have excuses, so she tries not to have one herself."
She's also not a fan of Williams, and vice versa, which we learned officially in 2013 when the two engaged in a media sniping match, with Williams first insulting Sharapova in a Rolling Stone article by referring to her as boring and saying Sharapova's boyfriend (and Serena's rumored ex), Grigor Dimitrov, had a "black heart," and then Sharapova one-upping her at Wimbledon.
"If she wants to talk about something personal, maybe she should talk about her relationship, and her boyfriend that was married and is getting a divorce and has kids," Sharapova said, referring to Williams' coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, and to a reported relationship not confirmed by Williams.
Eisenbud said neither he nor his client regretted that she said it.
"People know Maria as being a very classy girl, so that caught a lot of people off guard …" he said, "[but] you know how many players and other people came up to her after and told her they loved what she said? A lot.
"She's very real, and there aren't many very real female tennis players and that's what really separates her. … People know what's real and not real. Yes, she's beautiful and plays great, but her realness is why she is such a great partner to her sponsors. There's nobody else like that on tour."
Just the same, he did add, "You're not going to see her getting involved in that much [this year]."
Entertaining as it may be for the rest of us, that's probably not a bad idea.
"What she said about Serena, I'm sure she wishes she hadn't said it, but she's one of the most honest players out there," Navratilova said of Sharapova. "She gives you more than anybody, which is such a contrast to Serena, who doesn't give you anything.
"With Maria, I can almost see her thinking through things as she says it. She doesn't have a canned response and I like that from her. But you still have to have a filter, especially in this day and age. If you always say what you really think, you can get yourself in serious trouble."
"[Sharapova] is such a force now that whatever she says, it's magnified, amplified, exaggerated, then they use it to try to bait other players," Navratilova said. "They used to do it with Chris and I until we got together and put an end to it."
The chances of Sharapova and Williams conspiring together on anything seem minimal at this point. But forging a legitimate rivalry builds a relationship in itself.
While Victoria Azarenka, who defeated Williams in the finals at Doha and Cincinnati and took her to three dramatic sets in the US Open final in 2013, and even Eisenbud client Li Na have challenged Williams at times, the closest Sharapova has come was in the final in Miami in March of last year, up a set and a break before losing the final 10 games, including 6-0 in the third.
Clearly, Sharapova has to believe she can beat Williams. And as recently as last week in Brisbane, prior to her 14th straight loss, she acknowledged, "Well, I think I've got to win a few times in order to call it a rivalry."
But she also was just as clearly unwilling to concede anything.
"Some of the matches were a bit closer than others," Sharapova said. "When you go out on the court in a new time, you can't really rely on everything that happened in the past. You've got to start from scratch from the first point.
"Of course I know I've tried and I didn't succeed in the last many times that I've played her, but I'm setting up an opportunity to go out there and try to change that, and I'm going to try to do that."
If nothing else, Sharapova is "excited" to play again, according to Eisenbud.
"She has always been a pretty happy, appreciative person, but she's maturing a lot now …" he said. "When she can't play tennis, she's not a fun person to be around. It means that much to her. When she's back on court, she's happy. When she's away from the sport, she realizes how much she really loves it."