As Maria Sharapova enters the quarterfinals of Roland Garros, it is incredible to believe that she has not played in a Grand Slam in a little under one year.
Indeed, her first WTA Tour comeback from a rumoured career-threatening rotator cuff injury was a minor clay court event in Warsaw, Poland, where the Russian struggled to reach the third round of the tournament.
Since late last year, she has been rehabilitating from her shoulder operation and from the injury that has plagued her for many months, only being able to pick up a racket in February of this year.
In evidence of her desire to return to the courts, when she watched her fellow competitors at the Australian Open in January this year, she became so enthused by the infectious competitive spirit spilling through the television screens that she insisted the organisers open the gym at night, just for her, so that she could channel her competitiveness into fitness training.
This spirit has been Sharapova’s distinguishing trait for years—indeed, she won the ladies’ Wimbledon Championship aged only 17 against the odds—not to mention her childhood travels with her father from Siberia to Florida, USA, when she spoke no English and could not see her mother for years, just to practice her tennis.
Still, expectations for this Slam from the Russian herself were set at extremely low levels. “I’m going to take one match at a time,” she maintained.
Nevertheless, with her intense drive, sedulous effort, and immense motivation, she has proved in the past week that she is still the phenomenal competitor that she has always been. Each match that she has played at this year’s French Open has proceeded to three sets.
Indeed, in her recent fourth round match against 25-seeded Li Na from China, she did not play consistently, but excellently at just the right times, drawing on her prodigious match experience to know just the right moment to attack and pounce.
The score of 6-4, 0-6, 6-4 to the Russian does not correctly convey the nail-biting exchanges and high tensions in the match, with momentum consistently swinging between the two women. Yet once again, the imitable Russian proved the stronger, mentally outmaneuvering her opponent.
The joy on Sharapova’s face was clear to see. This is a fairy tale for her, completely unexpected—and she is reveling in the dream.
The French crowd have never been especially favourable towards her; but now that she is an underdog, there is a warm appreciation for her, a fervent murmur of excitement when she hits winner after winner against each and every opponent.
There is a mutual understanding and visible sympathy of her recent injury hardship, making her victories all the more delightful to experience.
She has extended her stay in the French capital much longer than many expected, with many commentators expecting her to struggle through only a few of the early rounds.
Yet after her grueling win against fellow Russian Nadia Petrova in the second round, a match-up that she was not expected to win, she has hurdled over every obstacle that has been placed in her path.
Now that the defending champion, Ana Ivanovic, has been ousted from the tournament, is it reasonable to suggest that Sharapova is now a real contender? Perhaps not right now.
The likes of Dinara Safina and Svetlana Kuznetsova have been blitzing through the women’s draw, meaning that little energy has been expended and their confidence is growing ever harder to break down. Safina was runner-up to Ivanovic at last year’s Roland Garros, equally to Serena Williams earlier this year at the Australian Open—could this slam be her time to shine?
Moreover, there are small but growing worries that the physical strain of numerous three-set matches is affecting Sharapova, wearing her down slowly, despite her trademark audacity and great endurance.
The lady herself still believes otherwise. “If it takes three sets, if it takes two sets, if it takes two sets in five hours, I don’t care. I’m willing to be out there for as long as I need to be in order to finish the match. I manage to get through and win.”
Is it safe to say that Sharapova is back? Perhaps not quite yet. But it is certain that the fire inside her is burning just as brightly as it ever was.