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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.

***

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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Cows, put on your skates.  Maria Sharapova would be the first to admit her shortcomings on clay, once labeling herself a “cow on ice,” but she claimed the first red-clay title of her career at Strasbourg this weekend.  Although nobody would confuse it with Rome or Madrid, the tournament will have restored some vital confidence to a player whose high-stakes game revolves around it.  We were encouraged to observe how greatly she relished winning this insignificant title, moreover, proving that her renowned passion for competition remains undimmed despite demoralizing injuries.  If Maria can carry her momentum here into faster surfaces, the summer hard courts should see her well-positioned to wreak some havoc.  Better positioned than a cow on ice, anyway.

While Maria journeys to the French capital, we inaugurate our daily previews of the matches to watch at Roland Garros.  Sunday’s order of play disappointed us a bit, to be honest, so the selection is smaller than what you’ll see from us in the future.  Nevertheless, there’s a defending champion and a pair of potential future champions in action…

Kuznetsova (6) vs. Cirstea (Chatrier, 1st match):  Just 3-5 since the beginning of March, Kuznetsova has been struggling to win matches since her title in Beijing last fall.  If the defending champion doesn’t win this match, she’ll drop well outside the top 10 and perhaps outside the top 20.  Unfortunately for her, victory is far less assured than in most first rounds, for the draw has pitted her against a quarterfinalist here last year, who upset Jankovic in a marathon three-setter.  Like Kuznetsova, though, Cirstea has accomplished much less recently than her talents would suggest and has not recorded an impressive win since defeating Dementieva in Hopman Cup.  On the other hand, she recently harnessed the assistance of Azarenka’s former coach, Antonio Van Grichen, and showed promising signs by defeating Kirilenko in Andalusia as well as taking a set from Pennetta in Madrid.  Both players showcase bold shotmaking that can veer wildly from sizzling to Antarctic, which might produce an entertaining rollercoaster.  If the photogenic Romanian can stay focused and within range, she’ll have an opportunity to pull off the upset.

Dulko vs. Azarenka (10) (Lenglen, 2nd match):  One never would consider Azarenka the retiring type, but the extroverted Belorussian has retired three times since Miami with a hamstring injury.  Also a quarterfinalist here last year, her balanced game suits the clay better than many of her peers and may someday lift her to the title.  It won’t happen in 2010, however, for any sort of hampered movement will be ruthlessly exposed on this surface.  Dulko’s consistency might enable her to wear down Azarenka in long rallies; the Argentine certainly isn’t intimidated by marquee players, having defeated Sharapova, Ivanovic, and Henin at Wimbledon, the Australian Open, and Indian Wells during the past year.  Another factor here may be the unruly French crowd, since hostile audiences have rattled Azarenka in the past by mocking her Sharapova-esque shriek.  That said, she has many more ways to win points than does Dulko. 

Benneteau vs. Gulbis (23) (Lenglen, 3rd match):  On paper, this first round should be an utter mismatch, but we’re moderately curious to observe how Gulbis responds to what surely will be a partisan Paris crowd.  The Latvian defeated an Italian in Italy and a Spaniard in Spain during his last two events, seeming a trifle jaded against Volandri but completely unruffled against Lopez.  An accomplished doubles player, Benneteau doesn’t possess the consistency or defensive skills that would test Gulbis’ still-suspect consistency.  Among the key questions regarding his future Slam success would be his ability to remain focused deep into a best-of-five format, but that question probably won’t be answered for at least one or two more rounds.

Sprem vs. Kirilenko (30) (Court 2, 2nd match):  Steadily rising in the rankings, Kirilenko impressively followed up her opening upset of Sharapova by reaching the final eight in Melbourne.  The 30th seed also navigated into the Rome quarterfinals after defeating Kuznetsova in three sets.  Situated in Sveta’s section again here, she could accomplish another strong run here, although she just suffered an oddly lopsided loss in Madrid to Radwanska, no dirt devil herself.  Designed around grace and guile, her game sometimes falters against an imposing server like Croatia’s Sprem, perhaps best known for a controversial Wimbledon win over Venus.  The contrast between adroit point construction and first-strike tennis could produce some engaging rallies.

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Vesnina vs. Petkovic (Court 17, 1st match):  This match deserves much better than Court 17.  Separated by just three places in the rankings, the Russian and the German both possess well-rounded games as well as an imaginative sense of opening up the court with angled groundstrokes.  Although Petkovic prefers hard courts to clay, she has acquitted herself surprisingly well on the surface with wins over Rezai and Pennetta, in addition to taking a set from Serena in Rome.  Winless on red clay this year, Vesnina nevertheless scored her best performance of 2010 on green clay in the now-defunct Ponte Vedra Beach tournament, where she came within a few points of defeating eventual champion Wozniacki.  Mentally stronger than the Russian, Petkovic should prevail, but their encounter should be more tightly contested than most of Sunday’s clashes.

Briefly noted:  Most of the ATP matches look rather nondescript, but here are a few of minor interest.  A year after thrilling his compatriots by defeating Safin 10-8 in the fifth set, Josselin Ouanna attempts to recapture that magic against dangerous doubles specialist Lukasz Kubot.  Two years after nearly toppling Federer in another 10-8 fifth-set (at the Australian Open), the ever-eccentric, engaging Serb Janko Tipsarevic duels with Colombian clay specialist Alejandro Falla for the reward of a rematch with the world #1.  A tireless ball-retriever, Indian phenom Somdev Devvarman unsurprisingly clawed a path through qualifying to set up a winnable match against Swiss journeyman Marco Chiudinelli.  While Devvarman must refine his shot selection and develop an offensive weapon in order to break through, the clay should allow him to showcase his excellent defensive skills.  Keep his name on your radar for the long-distance future.