Warrior instincts alone won't get Maria Sharapova back to the top

Should the warrior be a worrier?

With WTA No. 1 Serena Williams out as she expects a baby and No. 2 Angelique Kerber floundering without a tournament win, many are ready to concede sovereignty to Maria Sharapova, especially with her most productive major, the French Open, fast approaching,

"Sharapova has re-established herself as the player to beat all over again," Tennis Channel analyst Mary Carillo told ESPN.com shortly after Sharapova reached the semifinals of the Stuttgart tournament at the end of last month. "The biggest reason is her warrior attitude, which far too few of the current women possess."

True enough. Sharapova made a bold statement in her first experiment in live play, winning three matches in Stuttgart. She also fought from a set down in Sunday's Madrid opener to beat Mirjana Lucic-Baroni 4-6, 6-4, 6-0. Those who expected rust to be a factor were surprised at how well she handled the demands of match play, which can't really be duplicated in even the most intense of practice sessions.

Most observers forgot something, though: Attitude, drive and desire don't get rusty. If anything, they grow more powerful when inhibited. So Sharapova had 15 months to work on her fitness and game, while stewing in her own juices. It's a potent combination that helps explain how she was able to emerge from her 15-month cage clawing, snarling and hungry.

But Sharapova still has to back up those assets with a game and reliable shots, and that's where observers may have oversold her case.

Sharapova was lucky when the draw opened up in Stuttgart, thanks to upsets of No. 1 seed Kerber and No. 5 Garbine Muguruza.

The highest-ranking player Sharapova defeated in Stuttgart was No. 36 Roberta Vinci, who is 34 and toting a game tailor-made for Sharapova to exploit.

Another of Sharapova's victims, Ekaterina Makarova, missed an easy forehand into an open court when she had a point to win the first set. The air simply went out of the rangy 5-foot-11 lefty's game after that woeful error. True to her nature, Sharapova made the most of the lapse.

Sharapova finally lost in the semifinals, when she was in a position to be master of her own fate. A win over No. 19 Kristina Mladenovic would have boosted Sharapova's ranking high enough to earn a wild card into at least the French Open qualifying -- an invitation she may not get because of the tournament officials' reluctance to grant wild cards to players returning from doping violations.

In that match, Sharapova began making some familiar mistakes with her forehand. She wound up losing to a late-developing, but like-minded, player.

Carillo believes the foundation of Sharapova's "warrior attitude" is her powerful serve.

"Maria Sharapova has more self-belief [even in her high-risk serves] than just about anyone out there -- even after 15 months on the sideline," Carillo said.

Realistically, though, Sharapova's serve hasn't always been equal to her self-belief. And that's been the case in her return, too. In Stuttgart, Sharapova led Mladenovic by a set and a break, but her first-serve conversion rate plummeted as the match went on.

Against Lucic-Baroni, 35, on Sunday, Sharapova lost the first set, but she ultimately defeated the 2017 Australian Open semifinalist. Sharapova put just 51 percent of her first serves into play and won just 64 percent of the points when she did.

Sharapova was undone in Stuttgart by a player who can match her power, range and offensive mindset. There are plenty more like Mladenovic out there now. Sharapova helped spawn them.

She might yet make it back to the top, but her warrior attitude alone is unlikely to get her there.