She feels prettier
Sharapova's rediscovered game has her back in final
Posted: Friday January 25, 2008 11:17AM; Updated: Friday January 25, 2008 5:21PM
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Maria Sharapova has some unfinished business at the Australian Open. In last year's final, she was flat-out embarrassed by Serena Williams. No surprise, then, that Sharapova has targeted this event since.
"I've had some tough endings here, and there's always the feeling of wanting to go one step further than you've done in the past," says Sharapova, who will face Ana Ivanovic in Saturday's final (ESPN2, 9:30 p.m. Friday night in the U.S.). "That's always my mantra going into a tournament, no matter how big or small."
With this being a Grand Slam, obviously Maria's motivation is as high as it can be, and that has been a brutal combination for her competitors thus far. She was in devastating form while dismantling Lindsay Davenport, Justine Henin and Jelena Jankovic en route to the final. There's no reason to expect anything less tonight.
Sharapova had the rare opportunity to fly beneath the radar at this Australian Open. The glamour girl of the WTA Tour benefited from the attention focused on the other storylines here, such as Davenport's comeback, Henin's win streak, the Williams sisters being the Williams sisters and the Serb onslaught.
Remember, not too long ago, Maria was at a crossroads in her young career, struggling with injuries and a faltering serve. She points to last year's season-ending WTA Championships as to where she righted the ship.
"It all started in Madrid," she says. "Before [that], I was close to withdrawing and calling it a year. It had been a tough year with injuries, and I needed some time off to get healthy. But I kept working, and though I had so many setbacks, I still had a strong desire to play."
She went on to reach the final in Madrid and nearly beat Henin before the No. 1-ranked Belgian won a second-set tie-breaker and went on to take the third set 6-3.
"Sometimes you forget how lucky you are to be able to go out on the court and really do what you love to do," Sharapova recalls of that period. "Just that feeling of hitting the ball and running and hitting again. Before Madrid I just said, look I'm feeling pretty good. I'm just going to go out there and give it a chance. I didn't expect too much from myself and I played some great tennis."
The momentum she has brought into this year is obvious. Her movement and serve seem remarkably improved, and her trademark intensity continues to be a constant. She says the offseason was relaxing and rejuvenating, and it's hard to argue. She looks fresh, fit and poised to challenge Henin for the world's top spot in '08.
"I've been consistent," Sharapova says of the change in her game so far, "and not just for three, four games -- I've avoided major letdowns. The most important thing when you grow and learn is being able to play at a high level for a long period of time, no matter what it takes. You have to be realistic, because you know that it is never going to be easy. You are never going to be able to hit a winner on every single ball. It is just impossible, but you have to try to maintain that level and really play your game and believe in yourself. You have to believe in the work you have put in before the tournament, and then it is just a matter of going out there and performing. When you go out on court and you stop worrying about a part of your body that's injured or thinking about that it's going to get worse, it's a lot easier."
Maria will have the edge in experience in the final, as she knows what it feels like to hoist a Grand Slam trophy over her head, a feat the 20-year-old Ivanovic has yet to accomplish. (Ivanovic was blown out in last year's French Open final against Henin.)
"Experience is huge advantage," Sharapova says. "I'm fortunate -- even though I had a tough year last year, I still learned and gained so much. You hope that the experience and thrill to be out there on the big occasion will help you get through."
The Aussie women's final will be a blockbuster encounter between two ladies with the rare combination of style and substance. Sit back and enjoy it.
Former ATP pro Justin Gimelstob will be reporting periodically from the Australian Open.