<
>

Sharapova happy away from spotlight

STANFORD, Calif. -- Ah, the hard-court summer. The concrete, the heat, the humidity, the long matches and the crammed, grinding schedule leading up to the U.S. Open at the end of August. Ready to go?

"That makes me want to go home," laughed Maria Sharapova, who is kicking off her U.S. Open Series campaign this week at the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford.

But the feeling doesn't last long. Her recent appearances in the semifinals of the French Open and the final of Wimbledon suggest that Sharapova's long comeback from shoulder surgery is finally beginning to accelerate, and the Russian is more eager than anyone to find out whether she can continue that resurgence over the next seven weeks. Somewhere at the back of her mind are also memories of last year, when a solid showing in the lead-up tournaments was followed by a disappointingly one-sided loss to Caroline Wozniacki in the fourth round of the U.S. Open.

"It's really about maintaining a balance," Sharapova said of managing the next few weeks so as to arrive ready but fresh at the U.S. Open. "Obviously putting in the work, but knowing that I've already played a lot of matches and tennis this year and in the summer, just making sure also that my body recovers.

"It's a different feeling because obviously you come back from a little break and then you want to start working again toward something that's in a couple of months, but you also know you have a few events before that in which you want to do well at and you want to win at.

"I think you have to go with the flow of things and adapt to what's in front of you. You know, maybe this week I come out and don't feel my best physically. Does that put me down mentally and tell me that I won't be able to change things around in a few weeks? Absolutely not. You have to just adapt to what comes on your plate -- whether it's a match you should win and maybe doesn't turn out the way you hoped for, whether it's a great match you played and maybe you weren't expecting to play that well, but then you have to carry that level for a longer period of time than just one match."

Though she has been renowned for her mental toughness since the beginning of her career, one of the remaining pieces of Sharapova's comeback puzzle is stepping up a gear when a big match against a tough opponent arrives. It's something she has not been able to count on doing recently, particularly on her serve and particularly at the majors over the past year.

This week's big match could arrive as early in the quarterfinals in the shape of Serena Williams. With Williams unseeded, the two landed in the same quarter of the draw just days after Sharapova talked about wanting to face the American again this summer. "I love playing against her," Sharapova had said in a conference call with reporters. "I don't have a great record against her and I would love to change that. There is no doubt I would love to play her this summer at some point."

With both blazing a comeback trail, the meeting could signal the resumption of an on-off rivalry that has created some electrifying matches. The two met four times between 2004 and 2005 and three times in 2007-08, but only once since Wimbledon last year. Williams has won six of their eight matches.

Whoever they come against, Sharapova says she wants such big face-offs consistently. "They're exciting for me and I think they're exciting for the sport," she said Monday. "I think that's what women's tennis really needs. I think that's something men's tennis doesn't lack. There's so much excitement within that top four and top five. To be able to create those rivalries in the women's game, I think that's important."

The one thing Sharapova did not lose while injured was her status as one of the game's top off-court earners. She expanded her involvement with sponsors during her rehab from surgery, most prominently developing a clothing line with Nike brand Cole Haan that has proved quite a hit. The project has been personally satisfying because of the level of creative involvement she has been able to have. It's "my baby," says Sharapova.

"I was really hesitant to do it in the beginning because it's a really big project," she said. "Actually Anna Wintour, she told me, you don't want to start with something that fails in the beginning. I was like, 'Oh, great, that's a great boost when I'm really hesistant on something.'

"It was actually during the time I was injured and I had a lot of time on my hands. I just started really brainstorming, and I got so [many] things that I collected over the years that I was able to pull out -- my terrible drawings and ideas -- and I had so much of it, and I was really confident in what I had. And it kind of took off."

But in the end, the multitasking Sharapova is happy to be able to retreat back into her private life. She got engaged to basketballer Sasha Vujacic last fall -- as well as the more straightforward competitive world of tennis.

"I don't feel like I need to go to a red-carpet event for people to see me and notice me. I don't feel like my career's in the hands of someone that can put me on the cover of a magazine. I think those are really big worries that people have in many industries, and it's tough to live like that," she said. "I'm very fortunate that my career is driven from what I create with my own hands -- whether I win or I lose.

"I think that's what keeps me sane at the end of the day."

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.