Sharapova must meet Serena challenge
Griner hasn't proven anything yet
After becoming the sixth woman in the Open era to capture all four Grand Slam titles, it seemed Maria Sharapova would never have anything to prove again.
But it was a year and a half ago when Sharapova defeated Sara Errani at the French Open, and despite a silver medal at the 2012 Olympics and reaching the 2013 French Open final since then, a career crossroads appears before her.
After Sharapova missed extensive time last year, including the US Open, because of hip and shoulder injuries, the question is not simply whether one of the game's biggest battlers will return to form in 2014 at age 26, but whether she can overcome her internal obstacles and pose a legitimate threat to Serena Williams' seemingly unshakeable position atop the women's game.
While Sharapova stunned the tennis establishment when she defeated Williams, then the two-time defending champion, in the Wimbledon final at age 17, she seemingly only handed Williams more motivation.
Williams now leads the rivalry 15-2 after Sharapova's loss in the Brisbane semifinals, and as much as anything else on Sharapova's road back to her own normal, she must finally prove she can stand toe to toe with the best in the game.
"I haven't had a lot of success against her in the past," Sharapova said after advancing to the semifinals against Williams in the tuneup for the Australian Open, where she will be seeded fourth. "But it's the first tournament of the year. I came here wanting to play as many matches as I could and wanting to play the best."
In four meetings with Williams in 2013, Sharapova took only one set against one of the great players in the history of the game. But three of those matches -- Miami, Madrid and the French Open -- were finals.
Now she must re-establish herself as the player who does not just lead the world in endorsement money, but in earnings as well.
When it comes to succeeding at the professional level, Brittney Griner actually still has everything to prove.
Sure, both Griner and Maria Sharapova had injury-plagued years in 2013, but the main difference is that Sharapova has already dominated women's tennis, has already proved herself -- at least at one point in time -- as the best female tennis player in the world. Sharapova has nearly $27 million in career earnings, has held the No. 1 ranking (in 2005) and has won all four Grand Slam titles. Of course, it would be a nice feather in her cap if Sharapova rebounded from this second shoulder injury to capture another major championship, but, realistically, the 26-year-old has nothing left to "prove."
The same cannot be said for Griner. Last year, the Phoenix Mercury made the former Baylor star the No. 1 pick in the 2013 WNBA draft. But during that ensuing season, things didn't exactly go according to plan. First, Griner injured her knee, then her ankle. She missed seven games, and her minutes were limited in a dozen other matchups. The 6-foot-8 center, who many thought would help lead the Mercury to the third title in franchise history, finished the year averaging 12.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and only 25.9 minutes.
The Minnesota Lynx eliminated Phoenix in the Western Conference finals.
Still, Griner's less-than-stellar rookie year can be blamed on injuries. The truth is that we have yet to watch a healthy Griner play in the WNBA, something most fans are expecting to see in the upcoming season. The Houston native is currently playing in China, in the same league as WNBA star Maya Moore, and will return to Phoenix sometime in early spring to begin training for her sophomore season with the Mercury. For now, most WNBA fans have given Griner a pass for what they see as a mediocre rookie year. But the stakes will be higher the 2014 season.
It'll be time for Griner to prove herself.