Wimbledon remains the leafy place where Maria Sharapova became a star.
It has been 10 years since Sharapova, then the 13th seed, upset former Wimbledon champion Lindsay Davenport in the semifinals and defending champion Serena Williams in the final.
“Don’t let that beautiful smile and those eyes fool you,” her occasional mentor Nick Bollettieri said of the teenage Sharapova at the time. “She’s as competitive as anybody in the world.”
That has been confirmed over the seasons, the comebacks and the tight matches, even if few of those have come against Williams, who has beaten Sharapova 16 times in 18 career matches. This year, they are in the same quarter of the Wimbledon draw.
“I think the competition is a drug for Maria,” said Max Eisenbud, Sharapova’s longtime agent. “And when her career is over, it’s something that will be such a big void for her. At 4-all, 30-all in the third in the late rounds of a Grand Slam, it’s like her dream. For most people, it’s their nightmare.”
But Wimbledon, such a sunlit place for Sharapova at age 17, has gradually become a place with a dark side since that first Grand Slam title.
She has been an upset victim on a regular basis. She has struggled to adjust her footwork and her timing to the grass. And, despite a return trip to the final in 2011 to face Petra Kvitova, she has never won the trophy at Wimbledon again.
Last year, after losing in the second round to the 131st-ranked Michelle Larcher de Brito, she soon found herself in a London clinic, undergoing platelet-rich plasma injections to try to address severe pain in her right shoulder.
“The day after I lost,” Sharapova said.
That round of treatment did not resolve the problem, and there would be many more treatments as she played just one more match the rest of the year.
It is easy to forget that period of doubt. Sharapova has won 19 of her last 20 matches, and she shrieked and battled through a series of tough three-setters to win her second French Open title.
But the concerns were very real for a champion who missed nearly a year of action after shoulder surgery to repair two tears in her right rotator cuff in 2008. Her serve has never been quite the same.
“I’m very loose-jointed, so if
changes come - changes of weather, changes of balls - I am quite sensitive to that,” Sharapova said in a recent interview. “And I think everything just kind of piled on. Usually when that happens, we’ve been able to manage the pain, and I’ve played many matches since I’ve had surgery where I have some pain but been able to manage it. But it just got worse and worse.”
No surgery would be required this time for her inflamed shoulder; just rest, rehabilitation and another long layoff, which she used to hire three new members of her team: Dutch coach Sven Groeneveld, German hitting coach Dieter Kindlmann and French physical therapist Jérôme Bianchi, who once helped keep Amélie Mauresmo healthy.
Those three men were locked in a celebratory embrace in the stands in Paris this month after Sharapova held off Simona Halep in the French Open final, and Sharapova soon joined them in the stands.
“When we all got together and little by little started working together, I realized that there was really good energy,” she said. “It’s like everyone worked together, and this is such a huge piece of the puzzle as a professional athlete. You are the one competing, but the team atmosphere is so important.”
That seems ever more the case in tennis, with its emphasis on recovery and avoiding drudgery. Her connection with Groeneveld, who long coached against her, has been particularly important. It was all the more so because she was coming off unexpected splits in 2013 with her longtime coach Thomas Hogstedt and his initial replacement, Jimmy Connors, the former men’s No. 1 player who lasted just one match.
“She had a little anxiety after the Connors situation, because she’s usually never had anything that wasn’t going perfect,” Eisenbud said. “And after the second day, she called me and said about Sven, 'This guy is good.'”
Groeneveld’s record speaks for itself, and he has now been instrumental in Grand Slam singles title wins by Mary Pierce, Ana Ivanovic and Sharapova.
The question now is whether he and the rest of his new teammates can help Sharapova win another Wimbledon at a time when Williams, still without a Grand Slam singles title this year, should not be short on power or desire.
© 2014, The New York Times News Service