Keeping it real. That’s Maria Sharapova as she enters Australian Open 2014.
If that seems an uncharacteristic approach for a woman who has claimed every Grand Slam title – the first, Wimbledon 2004, when she was just 17 years old – in a No.1 career, it’s also understandable when you consider that Sharapova spent the best part of the second half of last season sidelined with a right shoulder injury.
“You obviously have to lower your expectations a little bit and be a bit realistic about the maybe the first few matches,” Sharapova said on Saturday.
“You have to grind, work through them, hope to get better as the tournament goes on.”
That said, you get the feeling that even after her difficult absence, Sharapova will be ready to pounce at whatever opportunities are presented in the Grand Slam that has so far yielded one title (Sharapova defeated Ana Ivanovic to become the Australian Open 2008 champion) and two other runs to the final.
For all her glamorous off-court interests – including her increasingly-successful Sugarpova confectionary range, which has just formed a partnership with the Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport – working hard to eke the most from her prodigious tennis talent is what Sharapova does best.
Even the four-and-a-half months that she spent sidelined last year were another opportunity for Sharapova to find solutions to her injury struggles and work on her fitness.
“I spent quite a bit of time trying to find solutions to heal faster. I travelled quite a bit trying to find different specialists to help me,” the Russian explained.
“I actually didn’t sit around too much. I visited great places, but meanwhile worked out. Had my trainer with me every day. It’s quite easy to lose shape when you’re not doing anything.”
If that meant Sharapova has unexpectedly become an expert in health matters (“I know a lot more than I ever thought I would about a shoulder” she laughed) it also meant she was well prepared for her return to top-level competition at the Brisbane International, where she progressed to the semifinals and pushed Serena Williams in a high-quality match.
At age 26, Sharapova appreciates the opportunity to contest 42nd major event.
“I’m happy to be back playing a Grand Slam,” she said, pointing to her absence from the 2013 US Open as a motivation.
“I’m happy to get myself back in form and really start well here.”
It’s a return that may not be completely straightforward, with Sharapova to meet Bethanie Mattek-Sands, a quarterfinalist in Sydney this week, in the opening round. While Sharapova has a winning 5-0 head-to-head record against the world No.48 American, she also understands the ramifications of not being switched on from the outset.
“There’s no easy opponent in this tournament, no matter what round you’re playing,” Sharapova said.
“She had a great week last week. She played some really good tennis. Last year as well. I’ve had tough matches against her in the past. I have against many players.”
It’s wise then, that Sharapova isn’t thinking far beyond that first-round meeting,
“I’m not one to really analyse things and see where certain players go. That’s why we play the matches. No matter what you’re seeded or ranked, we’re all here. There’s a reason everyone is in that draw.”
And having overcome her latest injury struggle – although thankfully, not as serious as the career-threatening one that required shoulder surgery in 2008 – there’s especially a reason for Sharapova to put herself first as she works on adding to her record-breaking career.
“I think it’s just about being ready, not really worrying about so much what’s on the other side, but taking care of your own business out there.”
She’s still keeping it real. It’s just a Sharapova kind of real.