2012 was a redefining year for Maria Sharapova, winning her first Slam in four years in the most unlikely place, on the red clay at Roland Garros. With the win, she joins an elite group of champions completing the career Grand Slam.
Once likening herself as “a cow on ice” when it came to the clay, she is now the queen of the terre battue in 2012, winning her first singles title of the season in Stuttgart and the premier event in Rome.
She explained after her emotional win overcoming her trials and getting back to the top of the women’s game (via the Independent):
"I think the first one I won was the feeling of joy from no expectations and not really understanding how this came so early," Sharapova said of winning Wimbledon early in her career.
"Whereas I felt like I really deserve this one because I've worked so hard and I went through so many tough days to get here. I never, never put my head down. I was grumpy and I had my tough days and I would yell at people and say: 'You're promising one thing and it's not happening.' I'd certainly have my doubts, but I kept going – and I didn't let anyone tell me otherwise."
The other three majors, plus a silver medal, weren’t total letdowns when looking at the results, but the matches themselves reminded the tennis world that Sharapova is a different player from her dominate years pre-shoulder surgery, and that she has work to do if she wants to regain the world No. 1 ranking after holding it for a few weeks this spring.
The big question for the 25-year-old is where and when will her next Grand Slam victory be?
If anything, this year proved that Sharapova can still win at major tournaments. She was a threatening force last year, reaching her first Slam semifinal at Roland Garros and final at Wimbledon since January 2008, and finishing the year ranked inside the top five.
This year, in her first four tournaments, she reached three finals including the Australia Open, however, she lost all of them.
Looking at this year’s Grand Slam losses (to Victoria Azarenka in Australia and New York and Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon) Sharapova was beaten by her own game, getting hit off the court by massive groundstrokes and aggressive play.
Her serve, although loads better than two years ago, can still be unpredictable, causing another setback against fierce returners such as Serena Williams and Azarenka.
Although in her most recent Grand Slam victory in Paris she only faced one top-ten opponent in route to the title, there was still momentous pressure on the Russian after favorite Serena Williams lost on the third day of the tournament.
It was Sharapova’s tournament to lose, and unlike at Wimbledon last year, she lived up to her expectations.
Hard court, however, is where Sharapova shines. This past US Open semifinal against Azarenka was a battle, and in the end, Sharapova didn't take enough chances, looking nervous in the final set.
But this fall season she has had good results, reaching the quarterfinals in Tokyo and the China Open final. Sharapova has historically done well in the fall season and should build enough momentum for early next year.
With that said, Sharapova is a top contender for Australia in three months. The Rebound Ace in previous years and the current Plexicushion used at the Australian Open suites Sharapova’s game well, as we saw her become the first women to win on the new surface back in 2008.
However, Sharapova’s three problems are Serena Williams, Azarenka and her serve. In order to get back on top and prove herself, she will need to overcome these players and issues, and Australia is a great place to start.