By Max Park
As Maria Sharapova left Philippe Chatrier court on Sunday at Roland Garros, it was clear that the former No. 1 was merely a shadow of her former self. Her heroic demise to the Belgian Justine Henin was lauded by the usually hostile and unsupportive Parisian crowd, as they cheered on a former semi-finalist who has largely been plagued by arm and shoulder injuries for the better part of the last two years.
Her match against the former Queen of Clay, Henin, only demonstrated the lack of match play and the erratic serve which has come of late to typify Sharapova. Forehand drives that landed just centimetres outside the lines, the dubious drop shots, the apparent inability to close out decisive points and most crucially, those double faults. One couldn’t help but feel that Sharapova at her peak would have nonchalantly scoffed at these problems. However, the reality is that Sharapova’s inconsistency and lackluster form has only faltered her progress in her comeback trail. Henin was the only top ten calibre player she has had to face this year and the inexperience fully manifested itself.
There is, however, no point in seeing only the negative aspects in a sporting match. Let’s look at the silver linings. Her trademark gritty-streetfighter-me-against-the-world dogged determination and fighting spirit was still intact and was the prime reason for the second set resurgence. What she lacks in technical prowess and precision, she makes up with good old fashioned perseverance and mental fortitude. I have had the ‘pleasure’ to witness another one of Sharapova’s Grand Slam losses, her 2008 Wimbledon second-round defeat against Alla Kudryavtseva. Camping out the night before to get Court No. 1 tickets and then to see your favourite active female player lose against her 154th-ranked compatriot was to say the very least, disheartening. However, what was most admirable about her play over the weekend and during that humiliating Wimbledon loss two years ago was her characteristic fierce intensity, instilled by father Yuri. She may have played drop shots at the most inopportune moments and even the Court 1 crowd was frustrated with her apparent refusal to add any topspin to her forehand groundstrokes, which time and time again, would hit the top or middle of the net; but that face of utter determination and fierce intensity never subsided.
The mental aspect of Sharapova’s game is what makes her stand out from the plethora of six foot Russian blonde bombshells and what has won her three Grand Slam singles titles. An improved and consistent serve and precise groundstrokes are imperative but it is her mental fortitude and fierce intensity that will ultimately pull Maria Sharapova through in this rather turbulent comeback campaign.