When Victoria Azarenka won the Australian Open in January to claim the world No 1 ranking for the first time, it seemed that the women’s game had found someone who might just dominate for the foreseeable future. Her victory over Maria Sharapova in the Melbourne final not only decided the No 1 spot but appeared to show that when it comes to winning the sport’s biggest prizes, she and current Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova had opened up a mental edge over the rest.
But if we have learned anything over the past few years, it is that you write off class at your peril. A rejuvenated and reinvigorated Sharapova has been playing great tennis – though it has to be said that Serena Williams has her number, today beating her in straight sets on Madrid’s blue clay.
Three months after being outgunned by Azarenka in Melbourne, Sharapova’s recent win over the Belarussian in Stuttgart showed that she is close to her very best once more and over the next few weeks, it is possible that she could even snatch the world No 1 ranking back for the first time in four years.
Like all great champions, Sharapova is focused on the biggest prizes but it is rare to hear her talk about the rankings, as she did this week in Madrid. “I’d be very happy if I won more grand slams and, now that I am close to that possibility, became No 1 again,” she said. “The important thing is that after my shoulder surgery I am back at my best level. Now I am in good shape and I would like to use it to achieve great goals.”
That shoulder surgery came in 2008, just nine months after she had added the Australian Open title to her 2006 US Open victory. During her nine months away, the rehab was so tough she wondered whether it was all really worth it and though she quickly rose up the rankings again, she was struggling to make it inside the top 10.
The breakthrough came last year when she won two titles, reached the Wimbledon final and ended the year ranked No 4, her best performance in five years. Her Stuttgart victory – which included wins over Kvitova and Sam Stosur – closed the gap on Azarenka. And having once described her movement on clay as like “a cow on ice”, she has discovered that she is actually rather effective on it, so much so that she will go into the French Open with a real chance and crucially, a real belief that she can complete a career set of grand slam titles.
It seems funny to think that it almost eight years since a 17-year-old Sharapova burst onto the scene by taking the Wimbledon title with a stunning victory over Serena Williams. With the power to match both Williams sisters and a rock-solid mind, more grand slam titles seemed inevitable but it has been a long, hard struggle for her to get back. It was former men’s world No 1 Marat Safin who once described Sharapova as being un-Russian, a compliment, he said, to her ability to stay mentally strong court even when things were going against her. Few players fight so hard and few have the desire to hit balls all day until they can no longer lift the racquet.
It’s this kind of focus that separates the great from the good and having been beaten by Kvitova in the Wimbledon final last summer and by Azarenka in Australia this year, don’t expect her to pass up another opportunity if it comes her way.