Sharapova's No. 1 chances take a hit

If her perpetual shrieks and scowls are any guide, Maria Sharapova doesn't seem to enjoy the actual playing part of playing tennis. Her patterns are painfully predictable -- and her serve, these days, is not.

But somehow, with a Siberian grit and gusto, the 27-year-old grinds on.

Believe it or not, Sharapova entered the BNP Paribas WTA Finals with a chance to finish 2014 as the No. 1-ranked player, ahead of Serena Williams. In 13 years as a professional, that's something Sharapova has never, ever achieved.

Not that this prospect has her turning cartwheels.

"My opinion about the No. 1 hasn't changed very much," Sharapova said Sunday in Singapore. "I always feel that ranking is also not just based on your results but based on other people's results and accomplishments. That's why I've always experienced the joy of Grand Slam wins so much more, because the spur of the moment.

"Is it an incredible accomplishment? Absolutely. It would be amazing to achieve that."

But ... she'll take her five Grand Slam singles titles, thank you.

On Tuesday, those No. 1 chances took a huge hit.

After rallying to force a third set against Caroline Wozniacki, Sharapova fell 6-7 (4), 7-6 (5), 6-2. The vastly entertaining match ran 3 hours, 13 minutes.

Sharapova, who had vowed to play more aggressively after losing to Wozniacki at the US Open, was far too loose, committing 76 unforced errors and 15 double faults. Only Camila Giorgi has had more doubles (356-355) this season.

Incredibly, in a 16-question postmatch interview the subject of the No. 1 ranking never came up.

"As a competitor after a three-hour match, it's tough to be the one that loses it," Sharapova said. "But ... not sitting in this chair thinking that there is nothing that I could have done. I really feel that a lot of the reasons why the match turned out that way is because of what I did.

"It's happened the last couple of times I played against her."

Now, Sharapova has to hope she wins her two remaining round-robin matches (against Petra Kvitova and Agnieszka Radwanska) and that someone (Simona Halep or Eugenie Bouchard) can beat Serena and prevent her from reaching the final. Then, of course, there would be the matter of beating Serena head to head, which Sharapova hasn't done in 10 years.

Sharapova has now played 41 best-of-three-set matches -- and 18 have gone the distance.

Considering that Sharapova played only one match last year after Wimbledon, she's had a terrific season by comparison. There has been little evidence of the left hip and right shoulder injuries that took her out of play.

For the 12th straight year, she won at least one title. In 2014, there were four tournament wins, Stuttgart, Madrid, Roland Garros and Beijing. On the European clay -- once her rockiest surface -- Sharapova won 19 of 20 matches, including the second French Open of her career.

This year's Slams were divided evenly between Sharapova, Williams, Petra Kvitova and the retired Li Na.

Tuesday's meeting between Sharapova and Wozniacki was the ninth of their careers, but Wozniacki had scored the most recent victory, a three-setter in the fourth round of the US Open. She went on to lose the final to her good friend, Serena.

Sharapova was spotty in the first set, spraying errant serves and groundstrokes all over the place. Serving at 5-6, she saved a set point -- with a forehand winner squarely on the line. Wozniacki won the tiebreaker when Sharapova served up her ninth double fault of the set, her fifth consecutive lost point.

Down a set and 3-5, Sharapova came back and won three consecutive games to force a second-set tiebreaker, which she won after relinquishing a 3-0 lead.

In the end, too many errors -- and Wozniacki's relentless retrieving -- did her in.

"I'm feeling a little tired," Wozniacki said after the match. "I'm just so happy to be through."

Wozniacki, who has been training for next week's New York City Marathon, looked fresher in the pivotal third set.

After losing at Indian Wells, Wozniacki fell to No. 18, her lowest ranking of the year. Now she's back at No. 8 and seems more than ready for a sprint to the season's finish.