Third Grand Slam creates new feeling: Sharapova
DOHA, February 17: Maria Sharapova takes a new feeling about her future into her first WTA Tour tournament since winning the Australian Open in spectacular fashion last month.
Sharapova's third Grand Slam title brought predictions that the 20 year old can take over as world number one again this year. It will certainly be a different Sharapova who contests the Qatar Open starting on Monday.
After enduring an injury-blighted 2007 in which she suffered many disappointments, Sharapova appears to have contained her long-lasting fitness problems and to have regained confidence in her ability to win more big titles.
"After having so many setbacks last year, visiting so many doctors, and MRI offices, winning this just felt so right," Sharapova said with intense feeling about her Melbourne success.
The coming week, in which the Doha tournament is elevated to tier one status on the WTA Tour for the first time, should provide a test of the long-term significance of Sharapova's remarkable Australian Open form.
While winning her first title for five months, and her first Grand Slam for 16 months, she dropped a mere 32 games in seven matches and 14 sets, and served more imposingly than at any time in her career.
The sense of Sharapova having reached a watershed increased when she followed it with a long-awaited and successful Fed Cup debut in Israel.
It confirmed the long-time Florida resident as "Russian in my heart," as she has always claimed, and helped dispel some of the hurtful sceptical gossip about her real identity.
"There were two things I wanted most after winning the Australian Open. One was a hug from my mum and the other was a burger," Sharapova said with pleasantly wry humour. "Instead I got a ticket to Israel."
But she played well enough and was applauded into the locker room by her team-mates after winning her first match, the performance suggesting two other significant long-term improvements.
One is to the long-lasting trouble with her shoulder and the other is to her immune system, a weakness in which afflicted her after every previous Grand Slam she played. This time she suffered no virus and less physical let-down.
Nevertheless Sharapova remains only at number five in the world, and climbing higher may again require further success over the next few days against players like Ana Ivanovic, her Australian Open final opponent, and the other flying Serb, Jelena Jankovic, her semi-final opponent in Melbourne.
Including these two, there should be 17 of the world's top 20 in Doha, making it one of the best women's tournaments ever held in the Middle East. This time though world number one Justine Henin will not be there to defend the title.
The Belgian is competing in her home country this week at the Proximus Diamond Games in Antwerp. Then she competes again the week after next at the Dubai Open, another special tournament for her as she has never lost there.
To attempt another tournament in between, and compete three weeks in a row, would be unwise for Henin, who has had virus and fitness issues herself.
Despite this Doha still has an attractive field, also containing former US Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and Anna Chakvetadze, who maintained a perfect record of seven wins in WTA Tour finals by winning the Gaz de France in Paris last week.
It also contains the last two Wimbledon winners, Venus Williams and Amelie Mauresmo. The French player, who also had a miserable injury-wrecked 2007, may be able to see Sharapova's recovery as an example of what is possible for herself.
Currently ranked at 19 in the world - her lowest position in a decade - Mauresmo has not gone beyond a quarter-final in any tournament since the Wimbledon warm-up tournament at Eastbourne eight months ago.
"I had a lot of injuries and it definitely affected my energy," Mauresmo said of her dismal second half of the year. Now she claims that she merely needs to recover confidence.
But she also withdrew from Sydney tournament citing a continuing groin injury. It means there will be many well wishers in Doha watching and hoping that her complaining body has no more nasty surprises in store for her.