Life comes full circle for champ Sharapova

Crucial judgements in the opener went in favour of the hosts, highlighting the need for improvement in that area.

Life comes full circle for champ Sharapova

Uh, where’s the grunt?” Chris Evert asked on the eve of the women’s final at the French Open.

Evert, a seven-time champion at Roland Garros, was simultaneously watching two screens in the NBC television compound.

On one screen was footage of Maria Sharapova’s full-throated, three-set victory over Eugenie Bouchard in Thursday’s semifinal.

On the other was footage of a much more muted Sharapova playing in the quarterfinals of the 2004 French Open, when she won just four games against Argentine veteran Paola Suárez.

Ten years ago in Paris, Sharapova was only a few weeks from becoming a global star by upsetting Serena Williams to win Wimbledon at 17.

But at Roland Garros, she was still a rising teenager with a relatively low profile who was searching for her game and footing on clay and who played her drizzly day match against Suárez on a show court that was not even half full.

These were what Sharapova would later call her days of being a “cow on ice.” But to watch her long before she became a French Open champion, the term “fawn on ice” seems closer to the mark.

In 2004, she was slight to the point of being spindly, and instead of sliding into her shots like a true clay courter, she would take a couple of abrupt, often imprecise, steps after contact in an urgent attempt to change direction.

“She dictates the middle of the court a lot better now and she moves in aggressively, and it seems like she was a little more passive 10 years ago,” Evert said.

“But the biggest difference I see in her moving is her recovery - recovering from wide shots and getting back into the court.”

The point of the double-screen approach was to appreciate just how far Sharapova has traveled on her dusty road to being a perennial French Open contender.

After reaching two semifinals, she won the title in 2012 and then lost in the final last year to Williams, her longtime tormentor.

This year, she overcame Simona Halep, the subtle Romanian talent who was ranked and seeded higher (4) than Sharapova (7) but who was playing in her first Grand Slam singles final.

“That she is in this position just shows her determination, her determination to set that goal for herself,” Evert said. “It also shows that power is still winning. Power still reigns over finesse.”

Halep, who had lost her three previous matches to Sharapova, is more about finesse than power.

A victory for Sharapova was a full-circle moment for a woman who missed the US Open and the end of last season with her latest round of serious right shoulder problems.

“I’m very proud because I worked hard to get myself injury-free,” Sharapova said. “I had to work through some tough losses in the beginning of the season that I didn’t want to accept. I worked through them. I worked hard, and I got to this position, giving myself a chance.”

Sharapova tore her right rotator cuff in two places in 2008 and missed nearly a year of competition. Her serve has not been as consistent since her return, particularly her second serve, and the difference between her motion in 2004 and now is striking.

“Her serve was much more fluid, much more of an easy, natural motion,” Evert said as she watched the footage on both screens. “I just think she has so many hitches now. She kept her elbow higher in the take-back in 2004, and she was reaching for it and snapping the ball at the top, getting good snap.”

Paul Annacone, who coached Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, passed by the room, greeted Evert and took a look of his own.

“Maria’s serve is a lot more manufactured now,” he said. “It was long and smooth and fine in 2004. I actually think her motion now looks more likely to cause a shoulder problem because it’s a little more rigid.

“She also has a bit of a lag in her take-back and doesn’t go all the way up to the back-scratch position. She kind of stops halfway, which I don’t think is great for your shoulder, or rotator cuff, either.”

But what is clearly smoother and improved is Sharapova’s court coverage on the crushed, red brick that passes for clay in Paris.

Instead of a fawn on ice, she is a woman in her element: sliding laterally and expertly into open-stance forehands and backhands; sliding forward in pursuit of the drop shots that Bouchard rightly deployed to bring her out of her comfort zone and to the net.

Sharapova, at 27, looks stronger in the legs; stronger in the core; much harder to knock off balance and off rhythm and also much easier to hear as the occasional grunts through clenched teeth of that 2004 quarterfinal have, depending on one’s tastes and perspective, evolved or devolved into today’s soundtrack of extended, open-mouthed shrieks.

“I think that helps her nerves when she lets it out,” Evert said. “She’s thinking about that rather than the nerves.”

Despite all the titles and earning millions of dollars, Sharapova still looks and sounds hungry, even hungrier than she was in 2004.

“We’re wired differently,” Evert said of enduring tennis champions. "I can relate to Maria in that aspect. It’s hard to let it go. “I remember when I got married to Andy,” Evert said of her second husband, alpine skier Andy Mill.

"He’d had 11 surgeries on his knees, and I remember him saying: 'Chrissie, milk it as long as you can. It’s going to be over before you know it. You have the whole rest of your life, but right now, you are great at something.'

“So the desire was there, and the desire is there for her, too,” Evert said of Sharapova.

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