This was supposed to be Maria Sharapova's comeback year. After a nagging shoulder injury caused limited success in 2008 and kept her out much of 2009, the Russian tennis star was widely expected to come back with a vengeance in 2010. Finally healthy, Sharapova would return to form and regain her spot among the WTA elite. Or so we thought.
Instead, Sharapova's 2010 has been a massive disappointment. She failed to advance to the quarterfinals of any Grand Slam, performed just as poorly at the top-tier events and won just two tournaments (lower-tier tourneys in Memphis and Strasbourg). Each step of the way, Sharapova was expected to be turning the corner.
The Australian Open was going to be her comeback; she lost in the first round. "She's still finding her game," we said.
Her loss at Wimbledon came to Serena Williams and included a dropped first-set tiebreak that went 9-7. "That's understandable," we said.
At the U.S. Open, Sharapova was considered a favorite. Serena was out, Henin was out and it seemed time for Sharapova to get back to her winning ways in Slams. It wasn't until she was dispatched with ease by No. 1-seed Caroline Wozniacki that the whispers began. They turned into full-fledged shouts when Masha lost in Tokyo to 39-year-old Kimiko Date Krumm and then struggled with a first-round match in China before losing to Elena Vesnina.
One of two things is happening. Sharapova could still be feeling the effects of the shoulder surgery. Maybe all of the confidence she exhibited this summer and pronouncements of health were athlete double-speak and she's been masking her pain the entire time. The 23-year-old hasn't made excuses though, blaming a lack of rhythm and poor training for the recent slide. That's the best-case scenario.
The other one is that Sharapova is on the downside of her career. She's so famous, so rich and so accomplished; could the motivation be gone? It wouldn't be the first time we've seen it happen. Serena and Venus Williams, Martina Hingis, Jennifer Capriati and dozens of other players have gone through periods of disinterest. Sharapova has been playing highly competitive tennis for a decade. It'd be stunning if she wasn't a little burned out.
Maria Sharapova will have to adjust if she wants to become a top-10 player and Grand Slam threat again. She still has the game to compete, but it will need to be tweaked in order to have the same sort of success as before. Sometimes the hardest thing for great athletes to do is accept that they're getting older and that their old weapons don't fire as well as they used to. If Sharapova can do this and find the motivation, she can regain her status as a tennis elite. If not, there might be no coming back from 2010.