New perspective for Sharapova

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- The phone, positioned discreetly behind the gray designer purse, flashed and Maria Sharapova -- in the middle of her Monday news conference -- smiled.

"My dad's calling," she said, sending the call into voicemail with a flick of her finger. "Sorry, Dad."

A few questions later, her sister suffered the same fate.

Nearly seven years ago, a shrieking 17-year-old from Siberia won the title at Wimbledon. Sharapova, positively radiant -- fresh is the word that comes to mind when you review the images -- blew kisses to the crowd at the All England Club and posed for photographers with the winner's silver plate.

At the time, she had no idea how difficult her achievement actually was. Now, with her 24th birthday looming in a few weeks, she gets it. Winning Grand Slam singles titles is exceptionally difficult.

"It's really overwhelming," she said. "I think you're almost a little bit naïve at that point about achieving something like that. From my perspective, I just didn't think I was physically ready, wasn't physically matured enough, wasn't strong enough."

She was, of course, and the irony is that for the past several years, those precise things have held her back.

Hard to believe, but this is Sharapova's 10th season as a professional tennis player. She's won three majors, a fine accomplishment, but fewer than many predicted for someone of her talent and grit when she broke through at Wimbledon. Her long, lithe body has betrayed her, primarily the right shoulder, the hinge upon which her game depends the most.

On Monday, Sharapova's peaks-and-valleys career took another important step forward as she thoroughly pasted the WTA's No. 4-ranked player, Samantha Stosur, 6-4, 6-1. It was Sharapova's first win over a top-five player in more than three years and ended an 0-6 string of futility.

When the last ball, a weak backhand by Stosur, trickled into the net, Sharapova did not exult; clearly, she sensed this was coming. Sharapova briefly waved her trademark fist at her box and walked, almost stoically, to the net. There is almost a Zen-like quality to her measured comeback.

"When you're away from the game and then you're coming back, it takes a really long while," she said last week. "Not only am I happy to be back, but I'm really happy to be, little by little, feeling better. With each match, with each different opponent, I feel like I'm coming through."

Sharapova, who reached the finals here at the Sony Ericsson Open in 2005 and 2006, has missed the past three events. The serious shoulder injury that took her off the circuit for nine months, from August 2008 to May 2009, and a cranky right elbow forced her to miss one of her favorite tournaments. Now, after an encouraging semifinal performance a week ago at Indian Wells, Sharapova seems to be rounding into the sort of form that soon could produce her fourth major.

She's wielding a new racket -- the Head Youtek Radical MP -- and has engaged a new coach, Thomas Hogstedt, after a long run with Michael Joyce.

"Bringing in Thomas has just brought fresher perspectives and a lot of enthusiasm into the practice," Sharapova said. "He's really a professional coach and has a lot of experience behind his back. He just goes about his business, just trying to make me a better player."

The heavy lifting, as always, has been the serve. The latest adjustment, which was implemented a few weeks ago, is a slight change in the stance.

"I have changed my serve so many times throughout my career," she explained. "I think every Grand Slam I've won I have had a different motion. That's never been an issue. It's always finding something that's going to help the shoulder out and not have too much stress on it, especially going from the first serve to the second and all the different spins. I think it's a work in progress and something that I'm still trying to perfect."

At Indian Wells, Sharapova's serve was sometimes dominant, but there were patches of several games where it would fly off the rails. Against Stosur, she was more consistent, managing three aces and losing her serve only once.

Perhaps it's the steadying influence of her engagement to the New Jersey Nets' Sasha Vujacic -- and the gorgeous $250,000 diamond ring that came with it last fall.

"When you come home, when you're done with your travels, you have somebody to come home to," said Sharapova, who has yet to set a wedding date. "It's always really comforting and nice."

Whatever it is, a sort of peace has settled in on Sharapova. And it seems to be working for her. The WTA folks say she could be back in the top 10 next week when the new rankings come out. She hasn't won a major in her past 10 tries and failed to reach even a quarterfinal in last year's big four events. With the Williams sisters out of action, maybe she'll find a way to hoist the hardware again at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open.

She's still only 23 -- only a year out of college for some -- but in the demanding world of tennis, Sharapova is already middle-aged.

"You have a lot of young girls on the tour so it makes you look older," she said. "It's a cycle. But everyone is going to go and grow older. That's the way it is.

"I absolutely would look forward to winning another Grand Slam," she said. "And if I can win one, it would mean so much more than the others I have won, especially given what I've gone through."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.