Sharapova sizzling in Oz -- for now
MELBOURNE, Australia -- If it wasn't for her grunting, you'd never know Maria Sharapova was in Melbourne.
She hasn't spent much time on site, and that's a good thing for her. Through three rounds, the U.S.-based Russian has conceded a mere five games.
Now that's efficient.
Her punishing groundstrokes tore through the dangerous Gisela Dulko and young American Jamie Hampton before she took care of Angelique Kerber on Saturday. Kerber, the U.S. Open semifinalist and a step up in class from the others, lost 6-1, 6-2.
"I felt like I was aggressive enough," Sharapova said. In the first set I didn't give her a chance to do what she likes. In the second set, it became a bit more of a battle. But I felt like I stepped it up when I had to here and there."
Sharapova's ankle isn't bothering her, or at least that's what the scores indicate. The stats tell us, too, that she's limiting the double faults. They've diminished from five to three to one, an auspicious sign that she hopes continues for the duration of the tournament.
But can Sharapova live up to her seeding and possibly even win in Australia to snap a four-year drought at majors?
The case against
Let's start with the pessimistic.
If she progresses, as expected, there's much more trouble ahead.
Remember Sharapova saying last summer that she wanted to face Serena Williams sometime during the U.S. Open Series? Her wish was granted, though Williams pummeled her 6-1, 6-3 in Stanford. It was so lopsided, in fact, that Williams, who's not known as a paragon of sportsmanship, gave Sharapova sympathetic applause as she left the court.
Kvitova would then be a likely semifinal opponent. Sharapova had the edge in experience over Kvitova when they clashed in the Wimbledon final, but the Czech eased past Sharapova 6-3, 6-4. Since July, Kvitova has only improved. Much, much better.
The real test of Sharapova's serving will come in the next week. As the pressure rises, so do the double faults (13 total against Kvitova and Williams). Unless your name is Serena, winning a Grand Slam title with so few matches under your belt and coming off an injury is almost unheard of.
The case for
It was a different time for Sharapova last summer. She was playing well and rediscovering some of her finest form. The only thing missing was the serve.
As such, she was expected to excel at Wimbledon and during the U.S. Open Series. That brought with it a certain amount of pressure. Now there's none.
Playing freely has significant perks.
Is it a coincidence that Sharapova almost upended Williams at Wimbledon in 2010 in one of the women's matches of that season? On the mend from shoulder surgery less than two years earlier, Sharapova was ranked 17th at the time and Williams No. 1.
Sharapova could sit back and coast to the end of her career, given the money she's made (more than $16 million in career prize money and substantially more from endorsements), but motivation isn't a problem for the 24-year-old.
She desperately wants a fourth Grand Slam title, which would be an impressive achievement after all the shoulder issues.
Sharapova will win another major, but not in Melbourne this year. She'll likely reach the quarterfinals, a solid result and something to build on.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter.
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