by Pete Bodo
MIAMI, Fla.—Today was a good day to be Maria Sharapova. It hasn't been like that all the time lately, not since she pulled the plug on her 2008 season in order to have the shoulder surgery from which she is still recovering. But on this dense, humid day in Miami, with thunderheads massed high above the stadium at Crandon Park (they ultimately showed mercy on the colorfully-dressed players cavorting on the court below), it was good. Maybe even "old days" good.
You know, those days when, unselfconsciously issuing that war cry (how does that terrifying, voluble shriek come so...naturally?), Sharapova brazenly hit through even the most resistant of opponents. Those days when Sharapova's serve caused the racket to spin and almost fly from the hand of the hapless returner. Those days when she would create those three- or four-shot combinations that ended points before the other women could get back on even ground to fight them, or to exploit Sharapova's lack of reactive flexibility and mobility.
Today, Sharapova beat Sam Stosur, the world No. 5 and No. 4 seed here in very convincing fashion, 6-4, 6-1, and it felt just like old times. In fact, maybe it was just like the old times, an issue I raised when Sharapova came to the press room. I wondered aloud if, since coming back from her surgery, she's ever felt like she's played as well as at any time before she went under the knife.
"I haven't thought about it, but there have been some matches where I felt like...little pieces start coming together and you get a sense of the court. When I came back after missing so many tournaments and matches, the first thing I just noticed was how those natural instincts just go away so much. You really have to—it's not something that you work—you work on it, but it's not just something that comes."
That's about as good an explaination as you can ask for about why today was different from recent yesterdays, but it also raises the question of what tomorrow might bring. And that's a tougher question to answer, because it invokes that familiar Catch-22: You can't get that "sense of the court" to which Sharapova alluded without winning matches, but you can't win the requisite number if matches without that sense. It's a particularly tough issue for a player like Sharapova, who's got a worker's game—one that's more studied than spontaneous, and to which that extra bit of help from the senses and instincts comes in mighty handy.
So what can Sharapova do to improve her chances of playing tomorrow like she did today? Although she hit five double-faults and served just 55 percent in the first set, she pulled it together and served 75 percent in the second set. More importantly, she attacked Stosur's serve with gusto. As she explained: "Well, against a good server, that (returning) is sometimes even more important than your own serve because it puts a little bit of, you know, thought process into their minds when they step onto the line, you know."
Shrewd girl, that Maria...
That combination of serving well and returning with confidence and vigor is a pretty good start for a player with her profile. That is, a quick strike player for whom a lot rides on either the serve or the return. But the best part of her performance today probably was the way she controlled the damage in the first set and mitigated her shortcomings in the second—all the while attacking Stosur with her return and off the ground as if she had no exposed flank herself.
This was an upset, given that Sharapova is the No. 16 seed (she's ranked three places better, thanks too some solid recent performances) and still groping to find the consistency that once enabled her to hold, or contend for, the No. 1 ranking on a predictable basis. On the other hand, Stosur's game has been in ebb since the start of the year, and even at the best of times she never could decipher the Sharapova code. The head-to-head going in was 6-0 in favor of Sharapova; Stosur won just two sets in those six meetings.
Sharapova is approaching the place where she can take that big serve/big return game to anyone. She just needs to get over that case of the serving yips and get to the point where she can string together five or six performances of the kind she turned in today (something she was unable to do at Indian Wells, her last event, where she battled through some tough matches but was battered in the semifinals by No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki).
Today was a good day to be Maria Sharapova. Let's see what tomorrow brings.