© Ella Ling

Maria Sharapova

What Maria Sharapova must do to win another slam


It is always interesting to examine a top player’s schedule for the coming year, one of the few ways we can attempt to learn what they are expecting from themselves. Maria Sharapova has been one of the best at planning her calendar, as much through necessity as choice, due to her injury problems in recent years. But to see the Russian plan 10 tournaments, in addition to a Fed Cup tie in Moscow, before the Olympics, suggests that she is fully fit and hopeful that she can add to her three grand slam titles.

By the time she gets to Melbourne it will be four years since Sharapova last won a grand slam title. A serious injury to her shoulder, a lesser but annoying one to her elbow and various niggles kept her off the tour for most of 2009 and it has only really been in the past 18 months that she has been able to play something approaching a full schedule.

Anyone who has watched Sharapova since she returned following the shoulder operation will know that her serve, once a real weapon, is now an inconsistent beast. Always aggressive, she hits with a little less spin than before surgery and hence the margin for error is that much smaller and the double faults can flow. A quick look at the serving stats for 2011 shows that the Russian was not even in the top 10 for first serve percentage, service games won, first serve points won and break points saved. Contrast that with the return of serve stats, where she is in the top two in all four categories.

It is hard to watch at times but there is little wrong with the technique and you can bet every pound in your pocket that she has been working hard on her serve in the off-season. Get that right and stay fit and she will be a contender every time she steps onto court.

That even goes for clay. Having once described her movement on the dust as “like a cow on ice” she has learnt how to cope, as she demonstrated so brilliantly in Rome last year when she won her first major claycourt title.

She has always been one of the very best fighters on court. Her mental strength is not in question and to have finished last year ranked number four was an impressive effort. But for an ankle injury before the season-ending finals, she might even have snatched the number one spot.

Though she would have hoped to have done better at the Australian Open and US Opens, she reached the semi-finals at the French Open and the final at Wimbledon, so it is not like there is much missing.

Her defeat by Petra Kvitova was a real surprise on the day but don’t be surprised if Kvitova goes on to win several Wimbledon titles. She is that good. Sharapova didn’t even play badly in the final.

Sharapova turns 25 this year and though there are plenty of miles in her legs she is arguably still improving. Certainly her movement has got better in the last year. No one will ever take her lightly and in era where Serena Williams comes and goes and the chasing pack are largely unproven, she is one of the few players to be relied on.

It could come in Australia or Wimbledon; it could even come on clay in Paris given a favourable wind. The one thing you can be absolutely sure of is that she will give her best. Her best has been good enough three times before. If she is fully fit, it would be a surprise if it is not good enough one more time.

Andy Murray has been testing the old adage “if ain’t broke, don’t fix it”  by starting 2012 at the Brisbane International this week. The Scot used the Hopman Cup as his warm-up event in 2010 and 2011 and reached the Australian Open final both times. Only time will tell if he has made a wise choice but it’s worth remembering that he won Queen’s and Cincinnati last year. Both those are good tournaments in their own right but their place in the calendar makes them effectively warm-up events, at least in the minds of the very top players.

In the end, the countdown to a slam is all about getting practice – whether it is in a tournament, an exhibition or in training – in conditions similar to those they will experience in the slam itself. Murray is likely to play an exhibition at Kooyong as well so I expect  him to be ready to go come January 16.