There’s a certain quality to Maria Sharapova, the current World No. 2 and five-time Grand Slam champion.
Icy cold on court, isolated from friendships with other players, adept at marketing … these are not attributes that one would associate with a personality who inspires fierce loyalty from a huge body of adoring fans. Yet, behind all her knife-sharp verbal jibes and sudden intense bursts of emotion, there is something about Sharapova that draws people in. Beyond her undeniable talent, she buzzes with charisma.
Charisma can be divisive: you’re either with Sharapova, or against her.
In 2014, Sharapova has been no less a figure of triumph and of intrigue. Although Serena Williams has again proved herself the better player by clinging to the No. 1 ranking with grim determination and upholding her overwhelming head-to-head record with the Russian, Sharapova has continued to be one of the most fascinating players to enjoy following over the tennis calendar.
After suffering a recurring shoulder problem that has, miraculously, not succeeded in ending her career, Sharapova took time away from tennis in the latter half of 2013 in order to recover her strength. Her arrival in Australia was long-awaited, and not without merit; in Brisbane, her first tournament back on the tour, she would reach the semifinal before falling in straight sets to Williams. Her Australian Open appearance was not stellar, but under the circumstances, her fourth round loss to eventual runner-up Dominika Cibulkova was surprising rather than concerning.
Clay remains Sharapova’s playground, in one of the most unlikely player-surface relationships we’ve seen in the sport. That relationship has been rocky – Sharapova once described herself as a “cow on ice”. Over time, her confidence on clay has grown and with that confidence she has discovered that the slower, higher bouncing ball helps her timing, allowing her to dominate with powerful shots.
This year her clay season began in Stuttgart, and success was immediate. The event became the first tournament that Sharapova has ever won on three occasions. In the quarterfinal and semifinal she defeated Radwanska and Errani with relative ease, before a tougher battle with a reinvigorated Ana Ivanovic which the Russian would eventually take 3-6 6-4 6-1. Madrid swiftly followed, the final of which proved a warm up for the French Open final, with Sharapova overcoming Romanian Simona Halep 1-6 6-2 6-3. Winning titles wasn’t coming easy, but Sharapova is a master of survival.
In the sunken clay pits of Rome, Sharapova’s incredible winning streak on clay would come to an end, as a determined Ivanovic avenged her Stuttgart loss with a straight sets win in the third round. Ivanovic would prove a thorn in Sharapova’s side again in 2014, and in dramatic fashion, but more on that later.
Putting Rome aside, Sharapova reclaimed her title as Queen of Clay in the dirt of Roland Garros, as she asserted dominance over young guns Garbine Muguruza, Eugenie Bouchard and finally Simona Halep in the quarterfinals, semifinals and final respectively. The final was hard-fought, and surely one of the highlights of the year – the high quality encounter seeing the two tussle over three sets to a raptured French crowd, with Sharapova eventually winning 6-4 6-7(5) 6-4.
With that, Roland Garros became the only Grand Slam that Sharapova has won on more than one occasion – very much an occasion for the Russian to relish, and the crowning moment of her year.
With almost no points to defend in the hard court season, Sharapova was able to climb up the rankings to No. 2 by digging deep in tournaments – her losses were brutal, and thrilling. Her “check her blood pressure” encounter with Ana Ivanovic in Cincinnati was no doubt one of the most talked about matches of the year, and rightly so. The match had everything a tennis fan could hope for – high tension, fierce rivalry, and exciting play. Ivanovic would, somehow, come out on top.
Therein lies the brilliance of Sharapova’s year: even the encounters she has lost have been contenders for the match of the year. She may have won the fierce encounter with Halep at the French, but her battle with Ivanovic in Cincinnati was no less enthralling. So too was her US Open defeat at the ends of another resurgent former world no. 1 – Caroline Wozniacki.
Wozniacki, who would go on to lose in the final to close friend Serena Williams, displayed the grit that had once seen her on top of the world – her perseverance eventually proving too much for Sharapova, as she took the match 6-4 2-6 6-2. If Sharapova’s strength lies in her steely determination to hold onto a match to its very death, then Wozniacki is her closest contender. Make no mistake, the Wozniacki death-grip is very strong – there is a fiery stubbornness beneath that sunny exterior.
Ultimately, Sharapova ran out of energy at the WTA Finals in Singapore, and dropped out of the challenge for World No. 1 – Serena would protect that ranking with an impressive late-in-the-year surge at the major events.
With four titles, three on clay and one on the hard courts of China, Sharapova had a tumultuous, but fruitful year on the tour. As the years pass, her corporate steel shows cracks – we see more outbursts of emotion, more unscripted snipes, more desperate fist pumps, more reminders that beneath the marketing machine lies a highly driven sportswoman. She seems to teeter on the edge of genius and disaster.
But isn’t life on the edge more entertaining for the discerning tennis viewer?
Love her, or hate her, Maria Sharapova is one of the most formidable sportspeople of her time. If her 2015 proves half as dynamic, half as gripping, half as nerve-tingling as the year passed … well, I highly recommend you tune in.