James Lawton: Sharapova hits the heights she feared were gone for ever
Russian demolishes Cibulkova and fills the void left by exit of the Williams sisters
Wednesday 29 June 2011
Maybe we don't have too much of an option but we should still hear it for – and from – the restored Queen of Wimbledon.
With the Williams sisters heading out of town, the earplugs and the migraine tablets were, when you thought about it, a small enough price for Maria Sharapova's reassertion of the aura and the nerve she brought here as a 17-year-old champion in 2004.
There has been a lot of pain – not least physical – in the intervening years and just two more Grand Slam titles but for a little while yesterday it was as though her share of angst had been packed away in the baggage of Serena and Venus.
Certainly, no one looked more likely to invade the vacuum left by the Californian hoarders of silverware than Sharapova as she bombarded her Slovakian quarter-final opponent Dominika Cibulkova with some ferociously maintained brilliance.
That it was accompanied by the familiar high-decibel shrieks is an issue which will have to await some sane adjudication by the rulers of tennis, but in the meantime the women's game can only murmur its relief that it heads towards the climax of the most prestigious tournament with a figure of authentic intrigue and competitive allure.
Her spectacular demolition of the 22-year-old, who beat her in straight sets on clay just over a month ago, and once ejected her from the quarter-finals of the French Open almost matched the racket in a Formula One pit lane, but if the ears were assaulted the eyes were ravished by some sensational ground shots.
No doubt it helped the consistency of her recently crisis-ridden service game – the product of a shoulder injury so serious it kept her out for 10 months following surgery – that the 60-minute 6-1, 6-1 triumph came under the Centre Court roof. Sharapova, however, was in a mood to create a storm of considerable violence.
Her tennis was some way from perfect. Occasionally startling power and quite exquisite placement gave way to lapses in concentration. But always there was the sense of a player reaching out for some of her old touch and achievement and later her caution was, inevitably, laced with the most thrilling of possibilities.
Yes, she has to be on her guard against the excellent German Sabine Lisicki in Thursday's semi-final, but there was no question about the most uplifting fact. It was that after all the years of dwindling optimism, the terrible realisation that her body – contrary to all appearances – was something less than a perfect machine, she could once again see some of those moments of fulfilment she feared had gone for ever.
Yesterday we saw a powerful hint that the eddies of a life of extremes, stretching from the euphoria of precocious success to the slow drag of disillusionment, from Siberia to Florida, may have left Sharapova in a position to strike once more for the peak of the game – and with a new understanding of the depth of the challenge.
Was she truly back? Maybe, maybe not, but there was the certainty that she had covered so much valuable ground and that perhaps she had served her time on the margins of the game she had threatened so quickly to dominate as well as glamorise.
Sharapova talked about a series of steps, some faulty but others as sure as the ones taken in the Centre Court yesterday. She said: "There were different stages of the process. In the tennis world you always know where the next tournament is going to be. You always have certain goals for when you're going to be ready, where you're going to try to peak, and when you're hoping you're going to be in form.
"During the injury time I was setting a lot of timetables for myself in terms of wanting to be back for this or that tournament and I never really met those goals. That was really frustrating for me because I'm not very patient and I'm very stubborn. That's just a terrible combination when you're going through a difficult injury.
"And then where you are playing, finally, what you need is patience. You have to accept there is probably never going to be a certain point where you say, 'Oh, I'm back'. I mean, I don't have that much self-esteem. I don't think anyone really does."
What she had yesterday in some impressively accumulating abundance was an old sense of her ability to inflict herself at the highest level of the game. There is more work to do, she conceded readily enough, but that did not seem such an imperative when she was raking the diminutive and soon enough overawed Cibulkova with shots of withering precision.
When lapses in the assault came they brought gasps of disappointment because the crowd had been brought so quickly to a heightened point of expectation.
The Williams had gone with their power and their usually welling self-confidence but here was someone to diminish the sense that the level of competition had suddenly crashed.
Sharapova was certainly not inclined to dismiss the evidence of progress, which on this day included no fewer than six service breaks on a player with good reason to approach yesterday's collision with some confidence.
"Yes," said Sharapova, "the return of serve was important today and I was very happy with my serving. I still feel as though I can add a few more miles per hour. But I think that will come with time. On grass, placement is really big – and smart. Now it's good, I've experience of getting into the later stages, but I haven't been in them for a while so the feeling is nice and refreshing."
For Wimbledon the feeling is passionately mutual. In the mayhem of Monday's round of 16 it was as though the place had become inhabited by ghosts. Yesterday someone asked, politely, if she ever felt like the old lady left in the draw. "No," Sharapova said after offering ironic thanks, "I don't feel a few years make that much of a difference."
In the Centre Court, though, the inclination was to disagree. Going back to the future made all the difference in the world.
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