Maria Sharapova Facing Major Obstacles Going into Clay-Court Season

Merlisa Lawrence Corbett@@merlisaFeatured ColumnistApril 3, 2014

An exhausted Maria Sharapova during semifinal match against Serena Williams at 2014 Sony Open
An exhausted Maria Sharapova during semifinal match against Serena Williams at 2014 Sony OpenGeoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Serena Williams defeated Maria Sharapova for the 15th successive time at the Sony Miami Open last month. However, that lopsided rivalry is the least of Sharapova's problems.

The four-time Grand Slam champion is facing far bigger issues going into the clay-court season. 

In a post-match interview, transcribed by ASAP sports, Sharapova talked about the positive side playing, even if losing to, Williams. "I mean, despite my results against her, I still look forward to playing against her because you learn so much from that type of level which she produces." 

Ironically, Sharapova's play against Williams continues to improve as she drops in the rankings. She is currently ranked No. 9. It's the lowest she's been ranked since 2011. She entered that year ranked No. 18 and finished the year ranked No. 4.

With massive amount of points to defend in Stuttgart, Madrid, Rome and Roland Garros, Sharapova will have to fight to avoid falling out of the Top 15 by summer. 

KEY BISCAYNE, FL - MARCH 27:  Serena Williams of the United States shakes hands at the net after her straight sets victory against Maria Sharapova of Russia during their semi final round match during day 11 at the Sony Open at Crandon Park Tennis Cente on
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

The lower ranking means Sharapova must play through tougher tournament draws. Instead of meeting Williams in finals, she could start drawing the No. 1 ranked player in the quarterfinals. 

Sharapova also continues to struggle with her serve. She already has 108 double faults on the year in just 17 matches. 

Unfortunately for Sharapova, a growing number of emerging players threatened to make the clay-court season more difficult. Simona Halep and Dominika Cibulkova are already in the Top 10. Eugenie Bouchard, considered by many as Sharapova in training, is also moving up in the rankings.

Meanwhile, Sharapova, who turns 27 this month, has to juggle growing business interests. She owns Sugarpova, a candy company. She plans to expand the brand beyond candy. 

She's been on the tour since she was 14. Even if she remains healthy enough to play well into her 30s, you have to wonder if she will maintain the fight and desire.

As it stands, her woeful record against Williams overshadows her otherwise successful career.Her legacy is as much about endorsements and endeavors off the court as it is about her tennis.

In an interview at the Sony Open, Sharapova said motivation was not a problem for her and her first priority remains tennis. "I think as players we want to be known for our strength on the court, because at the beginning of our careers that's what we started off as... We didn't start in a promotional advertisement modeling world. That was never our job."  

Still, the promotional world requires time and attention. That's time and attention away from developing her game. With new players nipping at her heels and one legendary player standing in her way, Sharapova may be facing a pivotal point in her career. 

Once called the "Queen of Clay", Sharapova may welcome the change in surface to halt her slide down the rankings.