By Wimbledon, the desperation had escalated. Maria Sharapova had successfully completed her conquest of The Rest, arriving at The Championships on a 31-match winning streak against all but one player. She had imposed her majestic superiority over every last serf to wearily cross her path. With two victories across two surfaces, she had even seemingly ousted the omnipresent irritant Victoria Azarenka, a player who – at least in Sharapova’s eyes – had ripped-off her entire approach to the game, tainted it with her typically unsporting antics and laughable injuries, then had the audacity to batter her with it. Repeatedly. Happy days should have been here again, but one vital piece of the jigsaw remained elusive; one final hurdle left to clear, one last player to defeat. Problem was, Sharapova wasn’t even remotely close to usurping Serena Williams.
Perhaps that’s why, when presented with the piece of bait to end all pieces of bait just a few days before Wimbledon, the woman who knows how to play the media game better than any tennis player on the planet so uncharacteristically took it with both hands; launching a peaceful yet sinister verbal missile squarely at the American, with deadly precision. As the drama publicly simmered and Williams rushed for damage control, Sharapova privately attempted solve the considerably more problematic issue of Serena Williams on-the-court through the medium of video analysis. It wasn’t the first time Sharapova had sought out video replays of her opponents to help shape her tactics – it played a vital role in her masterful victory over Justine Henin at the US Open final all those pre-shoulder years ago in 2006, where for 90 minutes she determinedly pounded the ball down the middle in order to rob the Belgian of time and take advantage of her time-consuming extreme grip changes. In general, this type of detailed video dissection that has swept most other sports is wasted in tennis and should be used more proactively, but this new attempt to oust Williams spoke more of a lingering desperation to overturn 8 years of humiliation.
Regardless, it all proved pointless when Sharapova was booted out of the All England Club by the world number 131 after two rounds. The hammer quickly fell, and Thomas Hogstedt was gone. In her statement, the world number two pointed towards personal problems that would restrict the Swede from traveling in the future, but perhaps the fear that she had hit a glass ceiling and was moving in the opposite direction once more prompted Sharapova to take advantage and search out for a new opinion and new beginnings, regardless of how much good had been achieved on Hogstedt’s watch.
And there can be no doubt that much was achieved.
It all came into fruition as Sharapova fell into the bitter nadir of her career. As a new season dawned in 2011, the comeback which had been so well-anticipated and hinted at a triumphant return in its first slam and the subsequent first big victory in Tokyo at the end of 2009, had since crumbled into pitiful pieces. Barely gripping to her place in the top 20, the R-question slowly circulated, and it was quite understandable. How could Sharapova, the richest player in history who commands a multitude of interests light years beyond the sport, hopelessly continue to trawl around the tour in the desperate hope of reclaiming a career that had seemingly been irreversibly shattered? It was a question she admitted was also asked by herself to herself, and she deliberated all the possible answers for weeks during her third consecutive WTA Championships-less off-season. In mid-November, she finally saw the light. Out went her long-term coach, Michael Joyce, and in came the Hog.
The issues that plagued Sharapova at the time of Hogstedt’s decision to shamelessly break-up with Li Na via email and inconspicuously move under Sharapova’s guard were multiple and endless. Her serve may have been the one glaring, infamous problem that caused double faults to leap up at the most inopportune points and made success but a pipe dream. However, the 9 month injury break saw colossal cracks envelope her entire game. The lack of athleticism and speed that was notorious throughout her career had sunk to new, unspeakable lows. The ballstriking, previously so reliant on laser-like precision to simultaneusly overwhelm opponents with heavy depth and surgically dissect them with glorious angles had disintegrated into linear nothingness; lacking any sort of width or depth and allowing her opponents to simply use the pace she offered them against her, all but her trusty and eventually overused cross-court backhand a model of error-strewn inconsistency. Even her famous competitive instincts were dramatically disturbed.
In short, it was any coach’s dream. In front of Hogstedt stood a champion who had previously scaled the highest heights, and it was his job to patch together her game and offer her the best opportunity at glory once again. The 2012 French Open forever sealed this partnership as a success, but whether she could have achieved far more is another question. What Hogstedt did achieve with Sharapova was consistency. Without disturbing her aggression, much of their work together focused on using more intricate wrist-work to incorporate marginally more topspin into her strokes, particularly on the forehand side. He perhaps saw what Azarenka had achieved in this era, much of it merely through rallying, and ironically sought to replicate aspects of her play in Sharapova’s own way. The increased spin is even more notable on her serve, which has developed a weighty quality in stark contrast to the precise and flat serve before her shoulder, rendering it most effective on the red clay.
Although Sharapova has developed a knack of tactfully brushing aside any comparisons to The Old Her, the glaring problem was that she simply isn’t as good as she was before the shoulder. It is of course partly down to issues that directly stem from the famous shoulder, but unrelated problems since her return have been just as notable. For example, part of the reason why her grass results strike such an inconsistent anomaly is that her forehand is still simply unable to hold its own pace, depth and consistency in the high-pace and high-octane rallies that arise against fellow elite big hitters. The slower hard courts and, of course, clay often help to enshroud this, but it is invariably exposed on the grass and in her complete inability to compete with Serena or an in-form Li Na. Moreover, her offence is simply less potent and more one dimensional than in her previous years. From impressively coping with a multitude of players considerably more athletic, versatile, resourceful and powerful than her before her hiatus, competing fiercely even when against the very best and when odds were stacked heavily against her, she now mentally folds with an alarming regularly at the slams. It is one problem of many that, alongside Hogstedt, she has failed to overcome.
But they are Thomas Hogstedt’s problems no more. A success his period with Sharapova has certainly been, restoring her as an elite player and amusing us with his hilariously inane on-court coaching speeches. Within the next couple of days, the baton will pass to someone new (or, well, old), someone who will be charged with the role of building on these successes and attempting to make the jump from elite player and champion, back into the the circle of elite champions before it’s too late.