If the goal of every tennis player at the 2014 U.S. Open is to win the title, Maria Sharapova is going to come closer than everyone else except the champion. She would probably disagree, but there’s no shame in second place at a Grand Slam event.
First, let's look at the positives that suggest she can reach the championship match.
She has plenty of momentum on her side after winning three Women’s Tennis Association titles already this year. One of those championships happened to be at the French Open, so she has already proven she can win on one of tennis’ biggest stages this season.
What’s more, she reached the semifinals in a hard-court tuneup in Cincinnati right before arriving in Flushing Meadows.
Sharapova also has a history of success at the U.S. Open. She may not be a five-time champion like Serena Williams, but she won it all in 2006 and made the semifinals in 2012. Unfortunately, she was unable to compete in last year’s event because of injury.
Sharapova’s opening match against Maria Kirilenko was an encouraging sign of things to come because it forced her to dig a little deeper than some expected and was unbeatable when she did. In fact, Sharapova got off to a slow start but turned on the switch and won 10 consecutive games to claim victory 6-4, 6-0.
Tennis.com called her merciless in the process:
If nothing else, it proved that Sharapova has an extra gear she can tap into when needed.
Perhaps more importantly going forward, it improved Sharapova’s record to a perfect 17-0 at night at the U.S. Open. That record under the lights is something to keep an eye on because she is a marquee player, and the household names often play in prime time in Flushing Meadows. The further she advances, the more likely it is that she will play multiple matches at night.
Every little mental edge helps when it comes to sports.
One potential roadblock that could prevent Sharapova from reaching the finals is Simona Halep. However, Sharapova beat her in the French Open final and also knocked her out in Cincinnati. Again, the mental aspect of things should be in Sharapova’s favor in this hypothetical matchup given the recent head-to-head results.
For her part, Sharapova discussed her preparation leading up to U.S. Open, via WTATennis.com:
This week will just be about working on a few things, getting out on the practice court, making sure I do the right things, both physically and mentally. You usually have appearances in New York leading into the Open, so it's also about managing your time and being fresh for the beginning.
Unfortunately for Sharapova, all that preparation and momentum will only get her to the championship match. The title will go to the force that is the No. 1-ranked Williams.
Williams has not lost to Sharapova at a Grand Slam since 2004 and has won their past 15 head-to-head matchups. The 17-time major winner and five-time U.S. Open winner is unstoppable at Flushing Meadows and won the title in 2012 and 2013.
We discussed mental edges earlier with Sharapova’s success under the lights and against Halep, and this one is impossible to ignore. It may sound cliche, but Williams has Sharapova’s number on the tennis court right now. You simply can’t argue with Williams' individual success in the matchup, and that’s not likely to change in this possible finals showdown.
For as incredible as her career has been, Sharapova has never won two majors in a season. She will come incredibly close at the U.S. Open to removing that distinction from her resume, but once again Williams will stand in her way.
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