Win indicative of Maria Sharapova's survival skills
After a decade of watching Maria Sharapova win four Grand Slam titles, go through shoulder surgery, adorn the cover of magazines and newspapers and set many a man's heart aflutter, it would seem that we'd remember everything about the Russian.
But on Thursday, after she struggled to get by Tsvetana Pironkova 7-6 (3), 6-7 (3), 6-0 in a match that started Wednesday and was called for darkness, the top-seeded Sharapova reminded us of something we keep forgetting.
"I'm actually naturally a lefty," said the right-handed player who played one left-handed shot in the match. "I played left-handed for a year in my junior year, and then I played two hands on both sides.
"I actually kick and throw left-handed all the time. There are many things that I like to do left-handed."
Funny thing is we never seem to forget Rafael Nadal is a natural right-hander who plays lefty. One thing that we never forget about Sharapova, however, is her determination and desire to win is undeniable. She's a survivor.
There was no way a career-threatening shoulder injury was going to take her out of the game. The American-based Russian was going to fight her way back to the top of the charts. She was going to find an effective serve that would not make her arm feel as if it was going to fall off. A former No. 1, she was going to be the best in the world again.
And she was going to do that all for herself.
"I never really went about my career thinking I had to prove something," Sharapova said prior to the start of Wimbledon. "I think it's more about proving to yourself than maybe the outside world, and expecting things from what you believe you can achieve."
To work toward being at the top again, Sharapova made a change at the beginning of 2011 when she hired Swede Thomas Hogstedt to be her coach. It might've taken the pair 18 months, but they realized their goal. Sharapova won her first French Open title earlier this month, which completed her career Grand Slam. The victory returned her to the No. 1 ranking for the first time since 2008.
"He came in believing in me, that he could see me back at No. 1 in the world, which was a plus now," Sharapova said of Hogstedt. "He brought a whole new perspective to my career in a way, a lot of energy in my practices which ultimately gets you to the match with that same sort of feel and desire."
Sharapova, who will carry the Russian flag in the London Olympics opening ceremony, has a bit of the Harry Houdini escape artist coursing through her veins. She's been known to put herself in a hole, but her three-set survival rate is incomparable of late. In 2012, she's 9-0 in three-set matches. Since the start of 2011, she's 21-1 in three-setters, with the lone loss coming to Italian Flavia Pennetta in the U.S. Open third round last year.
Sharapova started her latest three-set outing after a rain delay Wednesday, and she instantly fell behind to Pironkova, a Bulgarian with a natural affinity on grass, who scored a Wimbledon semifinal berth in 2010 and a quarterfinal showing in 2011. But down 2-5 in that opening set, Sharapova began battling back to eventually take the set in a tiebreaker.
At that point, the momentum was with Sharapova, but the natural light was working against completing the match. They played until Sharapova had a 3-1 lead in the second set.
"Obviously [it] felt like two matches in a way," Sharapova said. "Yesterday she came out firing, started so well, and had so many opportunities to win that set. I really hung on. I was just extremely tough.
"I finally got the momentum, I knew we'd be stopping. Everybody knew we wouldn't finish the match. That was difficult because I felt I had the advantage."
The second set seemed in Sharapova's hands when they left Wednesday, but she had a lethargic start to the day Thursday.
"I started with no motor whatsoever," Sharapova said. "I was just on pause. I felt like my feet, I mean, so many things, [I was] just making errors I felt like I put myself in a position to be up and I didn't take advantage of it."
On the final point of the second-set tiebreaker Sharapova sailed a forehand long to turn things from being one set and a break ahead to being even at one set apiece.
Sharapova tends to have good talks with herself -- she does it after nearly every point when she turns her back to the net. She must have had a serious conversation during the changeover before the third set because she came back on fire, never allowing Pironkova to win another game.
Sharapova takes on Su-Wei Hsieh of Taipei in the third round, which is a match she should get through. She doesn't always get by easily, but she's going deep in Grand Slams lately, reaching the final in three of the past four played.
This year she's journeyed to the final in six of the eight tournaments she's played, winning at Stuttgart, Rome and the French Open, all on clay.
But she's no stranger to success on grass. Sharapova won her first Grand Slam prize at Wimbledon as a 17-year-old. And she played in her second Wimbledon final last year, losing out to Petra Kvitova in straight sets.
It's worth noting that the last person to win the French Open and Wimbledon back-to-back was Serena Williams in 2002. Sharapova knows it's a challenge, but she's ready to give it her all.
And as a woman who as a 9-year-old left frigid Siberia for the sunshine of Florida with only her father, Yuri, Sharapova knows how to make the most of an opportunity.
"I think it's the toughest back-to-back Grand Slam-wise, no doubt," she said last Saturday. "Especially if you're coming off a French Open win or a final, it's the toughest turnaround.
"But I think that's the beauty of tennis. There's so much out there to achieve."