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At first glance, the numbers look more than respectable.  Few eyebrows would furrow over a 33-11 record that included two titles and five total finals across the span of just thirteen tournaments.  While  seven of the eleven losses came against players who have reached the top 10, four of those seven losses came against a current #1 (Serena), two former #1s (Henin, Clijsters), and a soon-to-be #1 (Wozniacki).  Yet circumstances converged to ensure that we will remember Sharapova’s 2010 campaign more for what she didn’t accomplish than what she did.

Elevating expectations before the season even began, victories over Venus and Wozniacki in January exhibitions extended Maria’s momentum from a Tokyo title the previous fall.  In a section of the Melbourne draw far from the Williams sisters, her recurrent nemeses, she seemed destined to reach the semifinal or perhaps the final of the major that she conquered in 2008.  On the first day of the tournament, however, Sharapova endured one of the longest and ugliest matches of her career.  This first-round defeat to Kirilenko hinged less upon her much-dissected serve than upon her groundstrokes, which erred by margins proportional to the significance of the points.  Equally ominous was Sharapova’s failure to tuck away a first set that seemed well within her control as Kirilenko served at 2-4, 15-40.   But the wasted opportunity would have receded into irrelevance had Maria completed the comeback that she began when Kirilenko served for the match.  Breaking her compatriot with fiery returns, she could not capitalize upon this momentum shift, as she had in a comparably epic Melbourne opener three years ago; instead, she meekly surrendered her own serve a game later at 4-5.

After this limp denouement, Maria marched into Memphis with much to prove.  Five mercilessly masticated opponents later, the Siberian lioness collected the second title of her comeback but had not defeated any foe more impressive than future Newcomer of the Year Kvitova.  Nevertheless, Sharapova surely arrived at Indian Wells hopeful that the tide had turned and that her Australian debacle was no more than an untimely hallucination.  Fortunate to escape an error-riddled opener against Dushevina, she then suffered an elbow injury in the third set of a battle with the tenacious Zheng.  Audiences would not see the Russian again until shortly before Roland Garros, when she broke from her routine by adding Strasbourg to her schedule after a premature return in Madrid.  At Strasbourg, Sharapova claimed her first career title on red clay, the surface that famously has baffled her throughout her career.  As in Memphis, she did not overcome a marquee opponent, but a three-set semifinal victory over clay specialist Medina Garrigues augured well for the fortnight in Paris.

Contrasting with her placid Melbourne draw, Sharapova’s draw at Roland Garros resembled a minefield, littered with not only Serena but four-time champion Henin and the surging Stosur.  Armed with a seven-match winning streak, she entered a third-round collision with the Belgian that thoroughly justified the anticipation surrounding it.  Extending over two days, this memorable encounter illustrated the potential congruency between the surface and Sharapova’s gritty determination, which enabled her to reverse the momentum after a disappointing first set and snap Henin’s 40-set winning streak at Roland Garros.  With her jaws firmly fastened around the Belgian as the latter served at 0-2, 0-40 in the final set, however, the Russian let those three pivotal break points evaporate and dropped six of the next seven games, unable to hold her serve again.

Maria Sharapova Justine Henin of Belgium and Maria Sharapova of Russia shake hands after the women's singles third round match between Justine Henin of Belgium and Maria Sharapova of Russia on day eight of the French Open at Roland Garros on May 30, 2010 in Paris, France.

Her competitive appetite undiminished, Sharapova built upon this valiant effort when the season shifted to grass.  Although she fell to Li Na in the Birmingham final, her serve crackled with renewed vigor throughout her preceding matches there; she also scored a satisfying revenge against her 2008 Wimbledon nemesis Alla Kudryavtseva.  When the All England Club released its draw, all eyes turned towards the uppermost section, which scheduled a Monday meeting between Sharapova and three-time champion, world #1 Serena Williams.  While Serena had resoundingly dispatched Maria in their most recent Slam final, British spectators recalled the Russian’s stunning upset over the American in the 2004 Wimbledon final.  As the Centre Court audience had hoped, Maria rose to the challenge during a first set defined by percussive serves and terse, emphatically terminated rallies.  In one of the season’s most meaningful tiebreaks, the two champions dueled on equal terms through the first eighteen points, three of which offered keys for Sharapova to unlock the first set.  At 9-9, however, a double fault and a Williams ace brought this suspenseful set to its conclusion, leaving the Russian to ponder what might have unfolded had she converted one of her three set points.  Although another set remained to play, the excitement soon ebbed as Serena secured the only break that she would need to escape this tense encounter.  Threatened much less severely by her later foes, she exploited the carnage that occurred at this year’s wildly unpredictable Wimbledon.  In retrospect, therefore, not only a match but perhaps a fourth major title might have slipped through Sharapova’s fingers with that pivotal tiebreak.  Had she eluded Serena, one would have fancied her chances against the trio of Li, Kvitova, and Zvonareva, whom the American defused in her place.

Nevertheless, Sharapova seemed less discouraged by the outcome than reassured by her ability to compete with the world #1 at a major.  Leveling her heavy-lidded glare at Indian Wells nemesis Zheng, she avenged that defeat in her Stanford opener before navigating through a three-set, 165-minute rollercoaster against Dementieva that hung in the balance until her last savage forehand.  Weary from consecutive evening epics, Maria would fall to Azarenka in the final, but the momentum from Stanford flowed into Cincinnati two weeks later.  On a slick surface friendly to her style, she outlasted newly crowned San Diego champion Kuznetsova and then trampled upon Radwanska and Bartoli with suffocating serving and impenetrable concentration.  Suddenly resembling her vintage self more than she had for most of her comeback, Sharapova reached a second straight final and a third meeting with a fellow Slam champion during a three-month period.

This momentous clash with Clijsters, however, set the stage for the frustrating performances that followed throughout the rest of 2010.  Racing through a comfortable first set, Sharapova looked nearly invulnerable on her own serve, while the off-key Belgian struggled to harness her strokes.  At 6-2, 5-3, victory lay within the Russian’s grasp as her opponent confronted three championship points.  Although Clijsters erased two of those chances with imposing serves, a relatively neutral rally evolved on the third point.  When an opening first beckoned, Sharapova didn’t wait for opportunity to knock twice but hammered her favored backhand towards the edge of the line, hoping to end the match with one mighty blow.  The ball fell wide.  After a rain delay, the tide turned slowly but inexorably against the Russian, who suffered the most demoralizing defeat of her comeback so far.  Melancholy in its immediate aftermath, she showed scars of the disappointment in her unconvincing play at the season’s three remaining tournaments.

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia reacts after a point played against Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark during the women's singles match on day eight of the 2010 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 6, 2010 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

A little lucky to escape the plucky Jarmila Groth in her 2010 US Open debut, Sharapova did record the second double bagel of her career during the middle weekend.  When she met top seed Wozniacki a round later, though, her performance sagged well below the level that she achieved against Henin and Serena at the two previous majors.  While the match stayed respectably competitive and featured numerous long games, Sharapova couldn’t summon her trademark precision and focus for more than two or three points at a time, playing into the hands of her tightly controlled opponent.  To Wozniacki’s credit, she maintained her poise as she sealed the most impressive single victory of her career thus far, but the inconsistency that infected almost every area of the Russian’s game reduced the pressure on the Dane.  As her season drifted towards a tepid conclusion, Sharapova won just one match in her last two events of 2010.  Her uneventful loss to Vesnina in Beijing seemed to come almost as a relief from the painful reverses that she had suffered over the preceding months.  When the offseason finally arrived, it provided a respite necessary to rekindle her appetite for the sport before a crucial campaign in 2011.

Although injuries, thorny draws, and other factors beyond her control played a perceptible role in her 2010 struggles, Sharapova never has relied upon excuses during adversity.  A mature competitor, she recognizes that champions design their own destiny rather than allowing fate to forge their fortunes.  In 2011, she must demonstrate that she still possesses the steely core of willpower and fortitude that propelled her to greatness and upon which she must rely in order to return there.

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We resume our look back at the year that was with a review of 2010 as experienced by the second half of our pseudonym!

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The most head-turning headline to emerge from Doha came not from its champion or from the year-end #1 but from one of the WTA’s sturdiest anchors, who now seeks new seas to navigate.  Although her Beijing breakthrough remains the jewel in Dementieva’s crown, she enjoyed several other golden moments throughout a dramatic—and often melodramatic—career.  We revisit eight of her most meaningful achievements.

Amelia Island 2003:

Then ranked outside the top 20, Elena scored three consecutive victories over top-10 opponents en route to her first career title.  Conceding just one game to world #9 Hantuchova in the quarterfinals, the unproven Russian rallied from one-set deficits against both Henin and Davenport.  Down match point to the future four-time Roland Garros champion in the semis, Dementieva showed the stubborn tenacity that would characterize her finest performances as she matured.  Moreover, the title run on Amelia Island’s green clay portended the Russian’s evolution into a threat on all surfaces.  This trait comprised one of the key factors in her ability to maintain an elevated ranking for an exceptionally long period.

Roland Garros 2004:

At the vanguard of this year’s “Russian Revolution,” Dementieva formed half of the first all-Russian women’s major final in the Open era.  After surviving two three-setters in her first three rounds, Elena dominated Davenport and Mauresmo without dropping a set.  Despite her one-sided loss to Myskina in the championship match, she affirmed her position among the WTA elite by translating her imposing results from smaller tournaments to majors.  Numerous players struggle throughout their careers with this task, and many never actually accomplish it, but Dementieva burst into the spotlight at a major barely a year after her maiden title.

US Open 2004:

Even more challenging than an initial breakthrough is the mission of consolidating that breakthrough, which Dementieva fulfilled just two Slams later.  Although her compatriots Myskina, Sharapova, and Kuznetsova all claimed titles in 2004, many majors passed before any of them returned to a Slam title match; Sharapova waited more than two years and Kuznetsova more than four, while Myskina never returned to that momentous stage.  In contrast, Elena swiftly regrouped after losing her Wimbledon and Olympics openers in reach a second major final despite the pressure-soaked environment in New York.  Undeterred by the disastrous denouement of her Roland Garros final, Dementieva obtained another opportunity after edging Mauresmo and home hope Capriati in nail-biting third-set tiebreaks.  Perhaps mentally weary from those exertions, she delivered an unconvincing performance in the final against Kuznetsova.  Yet her resurgence between Paris and New York revealed one of Dementieva’s trademark characteristics, the talent for recovering from disappointment and continuing to compete with redoubled vigor.

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Fed Cup 2005:

Dementieva delivered every point for Russia in the Fed Cup final against France, which secured her nation’s second title in this competition.  Capturing the ever-critical opening point, she avenged her loss to Mary Pierce in the US Open semifinals with a dominant third set.  After another three-set triumph over Mauresmo handed Russia a 2-1 lead, Dementieva found herself harnessed to a youthful Safina for the championship-deciding doubles rubber.  Defying the hostile French crowd and accumulating fatigue, she scored her third three-set victory of a memorable weekend, especially meaningful for a player tied so closely to her origins.  Before the Russian team became a comically bloated collection of superstars, therefore, Dementieva’s star shone undimmed through the atmosphere of national team competition, which many observers have considered more intense than any other context in the sport.  (Dementieva retired with a sparkling 22-5 record in Fed Cup singles action and a 26-9 Fed Cup record overall.)

Indian Wells 2006:

Notorious for her unreliable serve, Elena proved that her versatile game could outweigh this flaw when she carved a path to the Indian Wells while averaging 13 double faults per match.  Despite effectively donating four service games in each encounter, she defused the fearsome arsenals of upstarts Mirza, Ivanovic, and Li Na.  After mustering little resistance in the first set of her semifinal with Henin, the Russian refused to crumble but instead wrested victory from the jaws of defeat by capturing two tight sets from the Belgian.  Having accumulated four three-set matches in the desert, she wilted on a windy Saturday against Sharapova.  By reaching the final at one of the calendar’s most pivotal non-majors, though, Dementieva demonstrated that she could compensate for her serving woes even against elite adversaries.  In order to fulfill her potential, she had learned the key lesson of minimizing her weaknesses and maximizing her strengths, most notably her movement, footwork, and return.

Kremlin Cup 2007:

Eyeing a final against Serena Williams at her home tournament, Dementieva could have been forgiven for a bit of trepidation.  She had lost both of her previous finals in Moscow, while Serena had won all eight of the sets that they had played and routed her in a double-breadstick Miami final.  After the Russian dropped a tight first set, many onlookers (including ourselves) expected her to fade swiftly thereafter, much as Kuznetsova had in a similar situation on the previous day.  But, unlike her compatriot, Dementieva preserved her focus into the second set and soon gained the upper hand in their baseline exchanges.  Having reversed the momentum, she did not relinquish her grasp upon the match, dropping just two games in the last two sets.  Despite its modest position on the calendar, the Kremlin Cup surely represented one of this proud Russian’s most personally meaningful titles.

Olympics 2008:

The crowning achievement of Elena’s career, the Beijing gold medal seemed a reward for her long years of patient, persevering labor in the shadow of the Williamses and the Belgians.  A silver medalist at the 2000 Olympics, the Russian finally captured what many Russians consider the ultimate prize in her sport.  After she conquered a promising teenager named Caroline Wozniacki, Dementieva fell behind Serena by a set and break in the quarterfinals.  Exploiting a brief lapse in the American’s concentration, she slipped away with the second set and established a comfortable lead in the decider before warding off Serena’s inevitable eleventh-hour surge.  Dementieva then overcame the challenge of defeating consecutive compatriots, rarely an easy task for her generation of Russians.  In the gold-medal match, a similar scenario unfolded when Safina dominated her in the first set and came within a point of serving for the title in the second set.  Steadfastly clinging to her serve when it mattered most, Elena elevated her performance late in the second set before frustrating an increasingly agitated Safina with stingy consistency in the third set.  With the gold medal eventually rested on her racket at 5-3, moreover, Dementieva didn’t flinch during the most vital service game of her career.

Wimbledon 2009:

Ruthlessly efficient through five rounds on her least favorite surface, Dementieva confronted two-time Wimbledon champion and four-time finalist Serena on the tournament’s final Thursday.  In the longest Wimbledon semifinal of the Open era, she implausibly matched or even surpassed Serena from the service line for most of three suspenseful sets.  Winning a first-set tiebreak from the world #2, Elena forced Serena to unleash her most spectacular form, and even then the American prevailed only by the narrowest of margins.  On match point at 4-5 in the final set, Dementieva chose a crosscourt pass with Williams hurtling towards the net rather than the riskier down-the-line gambit.  Her high-percentage tactic nearly reaped rewards when Serena’s tentative volley clipped the net…before nudging across the tape.  Nevertheless, this classic encounter demonstrated the Russian’s ability to threaten the most dominant player of her generation on the most prestigious stages in her sport.  Although a loss, this Wimbledon semifinal might have been Dementieva’s signature performance.

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We return soon to preview the second edition of the Tournament of Champions in Bali, which has assembled an intriguingly diverse cast of past stars, future stars and someone who hovers between those categories:

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