Psychological pressure will prove sharp for Sharapova

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The Independent Online

The Psychological pressures facing Maria Sharapova at the US Open, which starts on Monday, can either motivate a player to greatness or cripple them through the fear of failure. That's why I believe this could be a pivotal tournament in Maria's career.

The Psychological pressures facing Maria Sharapova at the US Open, which starts on Monday, can either motivate a player to greatness or cripple them through the fear of failure. That's why I believe this could be a pivotal tournament in Maria's career.

I don't think she has as good a chance of winning as some others - my pick in the women's singles is Lindsay Davenport - but I do think she can make a serious impact and significant step in her career.

Since her stunning win at Wimbledon, Maria has lost at several tournaments. Part of that is that she has become the player to beat, a target. Every opponent raises their game because they want that scalp. Now Maria's back on a Grand Slam stage for the first time since London and all that becomes magnified. Now we're going to get a real sense of what she's made of, not just through results but through the way this 17-year-old girl handles it.

I sincerely feel the Open will strain Maria physically, but not mentally. She is one tough cookie in that respect. I have known her since she was a little kid at my tennis academy and have no doubts about the toughness of her mind.

In her draw she should not be hard-pressed for two or three rounds. Her first-round match, against Laura Granville, will be indicative of her mental and technical approach.

I see it going as follows: Maria will hit every ball on the rise with very little spin. She will serve with one thought in mind, to get a short defensive return and go for broke. She will not serve a pushy second serve, but will again go for the big serve.

Maria will move Laura at all times and come in whenever possible. She'll hit return winners. Laura, a former big hope for America who hasn't lived up to expectations, will need to attack to have any chance of winning. The danger in doing that against Maria is you can leave yourself exposed and she'll turn around and beat you up. That's what I think will happen, with Maria winning in straight sets.

Maria's draw means she faces a potential quarter-final meeting with Belgium's Justine Henin-Hardenne. In order of my favourites to win, Henin-Hardenne is second behind Lindsay but ahead of Serena Williams, Maria, and then a bunch of possibilities, who each might stay around a while.

If Lindsay stays healthy for the two weeks of the Open, she can go all the way with her pure power. Her fantastic summer of consecutive titles will again have renewed her confidence. She would be an immensely popular winner as her career winds to its end.

As for Henin-Hardenne, any athlete who comes back from a long-term injury and wins her first tournament (the Olympics, in her case), must be considered a strong possibility. Also, she is not the world No.1 by chance. She is a consistent, top-class player who can beat anyone.

I will be shocked if Serena Williams is not in contention deep into the second week. She has a fantastic draw for her game, with the only concern - evident against Maria in the Wimbledon final - being the unforced errors, especially on the forehand side.

Anastasia Myskina's French Open win has been called a fluke by many "experts". I think Anatasia can do just about anything on the court, and moves like a track star. Her draw gives her plenty of opportunity until the fourth round. Amélie Mauresmo has it all, but I'm not sure she believes that.

On the subject of belief in yourself, and the utter importance of that, we come to Roger Federer, who I pick to win the men's singles. Federer promised to do great things for quite a while but not until his first Slam title, at Wimbledon last year, did he seem to have it cracked. Now it's simple to describe his game: darn good in all areas and no apparent weakness.

Andre Agassi has said that to beat Federer he would need to be playing at his very best and Federer would need to be a little off here and there. That's true, and coming from one of the few guys who I think even has the potential really to push Federer at this tournament, it says something.

Andy Roddick is another with a clear chance, on home soil. A final between Federer and Roddick would be no surprise and something to look forward to.

Other men to follow include Andre, who is adored by the New York crowds, and Lleyton Hewitt, who's playing back to form after a summer of confidence-boosting results. And watch for the young kid Rafael Nadal, who could become a superstar overnight with one big result on the main court.

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