Maria Sharapova in disarray
What's a good mystery without a surprise ending?
Maria Sharapova's withdrawal from the US Open on Wednesday evening was unexpected, with the former champion announcing that she was pulling out with shoulder bursitis. But in some ways it was also the culmination of a bizarre summer that had already left her coming into the event with just one match played in preparation, a coach short and -- for a few hours, anyway -- possibly not even with the same name.
The tale began at Wimbledon, starting as the 26-year-old Russian was stumbling and tumbling on a slippery grass court during a three-set loss to former prodigy Michelle Larcher de Brito. She took three falls, hurting her hip and setting into action the strange course of events that followed.
Her shoulder may have been bothering her too, but the hip injury was the official reason Sharapova pulled out of scheduled events in Stanford and Toronto, leaving last week's tournament in Cincinnati as her only preparation for Flushing Meadows.
Making the situation more tenuous was that Sharapova had parted ways with her coach, Thomas Hogstedt, shortly after Wimbledon. The two had worked together since the beginning of 2011. No reason was given for the split, but one source of frustration may have been Sharapova's continuing inability to defeat Serena Williams. Ever since Sharapova shocked her twice as a 17-year-old in 2004, Williams had won all 12 of their subsequent meetings. Their latest encounter was in the French Open final in June, when Sharapova tried to adjust her recent approach and even turned to video analysis for tactical insight. But despite challenging Williams for periods of the match, Sharapova still lost the fist-pumping faceoff in straight sets.
A day after announcing the split, Sharapova confirmed her new coach would be Jimmy Connors -- a move greeted with surprise and skepticism in tennis circles. Connors had enjoyed some success coaching Andy Roddick between 2006 and 2008, but he had never worked with a WTA player and his familiarity with the current women's tour was felt to be limited. Still, the pairing had some appeal; Connors had spent much of his career doggedly pursuing rivals John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, much like Sharapova was now chasing Williams. And the eight-time Grand Slam champion was also one of the few who could match or exceed Sharapova's intensity on the court. No wonder there was considerable interest in seeing how the partnership would work out.
The prospects of a smooth start, however, diminished when Sharapova drew a tricky opening-round opponent for her return in Cincinnati -- 20-year-old American Sloane Stephens, who has been up and down since reaching the Australian Open semifinals but whose adaptable game was capable of exposing any lingering rust.
With Connors courtside for the first time, Sharapova began the match looking sharp, quickly going up a set and 2-0 in the second. A rare slice backhand approach, knifed cross-court, was a sign of her confident play.
But things began to unravel at that point. Sharapova's first serve and movement fell off, she lost the second-set tiebreak, and she finished the match in a flurry of unforced errors.
"I stopped being patient," Sharapova said after a 2-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3 defeat. "I started making a lot more errors, especially off the first ball. Just errors that I shouldn't make. Obviously I haven't played in a long time, but I can't make that excuse for myself because I've got to be ready from the first match."
With such a short lead-up, Sharapova might have been expected to take a wild card into this week's event in New Haven, but she chose not to. Her explanation contained no hint that there was any doubt about her participation at the US Open.
"I'm planning on playing a lot of matches in New York, and just for the body, it's tough to play a week before if you're planning on doing extremely well in that event," she said.
As if her preparation was not in enough disarray, news broke that Sharapova had parted ways with Connors, ending the coaching relationship after one match. The abrupt end was as unexpected as the original pairing had been, with even Roddick tweeting his surprise.
The comings and goings weren't over. The next development was the return of Sharapova's father, Yuri, who served as her official coach during the early part of her career before the role was handed over to then-hitting partner Michael Joyce. Yuri was at her practice session at Flushing Meadows on Wednesday, a familiar if not exactly nostalgic scene that seemed to signal a return to some normalcy.
Who would have thought the biggest news was yet to come? The most absurd episode had only just finished taking place, with a straight-faced report in the Times of London saying that she was thinking about changing her last name to "Sugarpova" during the tournament to generate publicity for her candy line. The story generated media headlines around the world Tuesday morning before an ESPN.com story quoted Sharapova's agent saying the idea had turned out to be impractical.
Later that day, Sharapova blithely went on with her various appearances to promote the product and the accessories line being added to it.
Of course, causing a sensation has been par for the course with Sharapova this year. Her relationship with fellow pro Grigor Dimitrov, which began toward the end of last year, was the source of much conjecture before being publicly confirmed in May when the two were photographed holding hands during the tournament in Rome. And in addition to their frequent meetings on court, Sharapova and Williams tangled off the court in a much-publicized incident just before Wimbledon. It began with a magazine article that quoted Williams criticizing a player and her choice of boyfriend during a phone call, with speculation in the story that Williams was talking about Sharapova. Sharapova responded publicly during a pre-Wimbledon news conference by referencing Williams' liaison with her coach. "If she wants to talk about something personal, maybe she should talk about her relationship and her boyfriend that was married and is getting divorced and has kids," said Sharapova.
But Sharapova hasn't been just all talk this season either. She began the year at the Australian Open looking like the best player in the field before suffering a letdown against Li Na in the semifinals. After that, she did not lose another match to anyone except Williams until Wimbledon and seemed to be playing her best since her return to the tour after shoulder surgery five years ago.
That's why the return of shoulder problems is especially unfortunate news for Sharapova, particularly as the issue seems to be serious. A Tennis.com story quoted sources saying she had several injections after Wimbledon to try to improve the situation, clearly without success, and that she could miss the rest of the season.
Meanwhile, Sharapova's two biggest rivals, Williams and Victoria Azarenka, enter the US Open as strong favorites after splitting the two big lead-up events, Cincinnati and Toronto. And Sharapova, who was right in the mix with both of them earlier in the year, has not been able to find her feet ever since she fell on the Wimbledon grass.