dogged determination

SHARAPOVA DOWN AND OUT (BUT NOT FOR LONG)

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.

It’s Official: Justine Henin Makes Comeback To The WTA Tour

Former world No. 1 Justine Henin is returning to competitive tennis, making the announcement barely a week after Kim Clijsters capped her comeback from retirement with a second U.S. Open title.

Henin had been retired for just over a year, but at 27 says she has the fire and physical strength to compete for an eighth Grand Slam title. Her announcement on VTM television capped an about-face that went from her “definitive decision” to retire last year, to weeks of no comment to a smiling admission Tuesday that she truly missed the game too much.

She wants to play two exhibition tournaments, in Charleroi, Belgium, and Dubai, to hone her skills ahead of a competitive return next year with plans to compete in the next Grand Slam, the Australian Open.

“The fire within burns again,” Henin said. “I want to come back in January.”

Henin officially retired on May 14, 2008, initially rejecting any thought of a comeback with a dogged determination that had come to mark her play throughout a decade-long career that yielded seven Grand Slam titles and one Olympic gold medal.

At 27, it certainly is not too late for a comeback. As Clijsters proved, breaking back into the top tier at short notice is far from impossible. She won the U.S. Open in her third tournament since announcing her return.

“Subconsciously, it might have had an impact,” Henin said of Clijster’s successful comeback. “But it certainly was not the most important reason.”

Like Clijsters, Henin is still in her prime and has been able to rest her body for over a year. Throughout her retirement, during which she became a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, Henin looked fit enough to immediately step back onto a court.

As recently as May, she complained about the old injuries that still gave her pain in the mornings and the dreaded life of living in a bubble as she was shuttled around the world chasing victories.

“The last 15 months I’ve been able to recharge the batteries, emotionally as well,” Henin said.

Henin said coming face to face with the world’s misery on UNICEF trips to places like eastern Congo widened her horizons like tennis never could.

Henin has won nearly $20 million in prize money and had been ranked No. 1 for all but seven weeks since Nov. 13, 2006, until her retirement. When she retired after a string of early tournament exits just ahead of Roland Garros, she felt the fire no longer within and gave in.

It was the first time in a life totally centered around her prodigious talent for whipping backhands past hapless competitors. She became the first woman player to retire as No. 1.

Then, suddenly, this summer the craving came back.