x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Second places are a positive sign for Maria Sharapova

The Russian may have lost in three finals but there is plenty of signs of encouragement, writes Paul Oberjuerge.

Maria Sharapova, right, was beaten by Agnieszka Radwanska in Miami.
Maria Sharapova, right, was beaten by Agnieszka Radwanska in Miami.

That Maria Sharapova has contrived to be ranked No 2 in the world for nearly two months despite not winning a tournament since August tells us she is back, but not quite all the way.

Her pace and aggression have returned in sufficient force to overcome most of her rivals. However, savvy opponents like Victoria Azarenka and the slip of a girl Agnieszka Radwanska, have turned Sharapova's pressing style against her. Radwanska did so with spectacular success in the Sony Ericsson Open final in Miami, winning 7-5, 6-4.

The match was on Sharapova's racket from beginning to end. She pounded 31 winners but also sprayed 45 unforced errors. Radwanska simply kept the ball in play, producing only six winners and 10 unforced errors.

Sharapova said her opponent "got that extra ball back and I made that extra mistake".

The good news for Sharapova's legion of fans is that the tall Russian, still only 24, is sustaining her best run of tennis since 2008, when she won the third of her three major titles, at Australia, and was ranked No 1 in the world.

Late in that year she had surgery to repair the rotator cuff in her right shoulder. In 2009 and 2010 she played mostly on guile, and was ranked in the upper reaches of the top 20. It was not at all clear she would be an elite player again.

Late last year, she seemed to turn a fitness corner, and this year she reached the final at Melbourne and Indian Wells, each time losing to Azarenka. In Miami, she went down to Radwanska on the final day.

"The few errors on important points that I made I thought were, you know, maybe I shouldn't have gone for the line so much, aimed a little bit closer to the middle," Sharapova said.

She conceded that the near-misses are becoming tiresome.

"You do a really good job to get there, but it's the toughest round. … I would have loved to be the winner, but that's just the way it goes."

Her return to No 1 might be as simple as this: controlling her urge to go for winners on every swing.

Having Sharapova back in elite tennis is good for the game; she has the sort of star power that has been at a premium in the WTA during the slow decline of the Williams sisters and Kim Clijsters, and the retirement of Justine Henin and Elena Dementieva.

Said Radwanska: "It's a great feeling to beat these kinds of players, especially in a final."

Sharapova is one of "those kind" of players again.


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