By Christopher Clarey
New York Times News Service
BRADENTON, Fla. — What can be learned over a long December lunch with Maria Sharapova, in a nearly empty Italian chain restaurant where the waiters try to play it cool as they refill the drinks without asking her to autograph the coasters?
The most significant tennis news is that she claims she can serve without pain after trying platelet-rich plasma injections, shock-wave therapy and other treatments for her ailing right shoulder in an unsuccessful bid to play at this year’s U.S. Open.
But there was much more to discuss for a woman with a new coach, Sven Groeneveld; fresh challenges as a candy mogul and a television commentator for the Winter Olympics; and an old, deeply daunting problem still left to solve in Serena Williams.
“Absolutely, I’m glad she exists,” Sharapova said when asked if it was good, even with the defeats and the personal friction, that Williams was still there to remind her of just how sharp and healthy she needs to be to resume winning Grand Slam tournaments.
Sharapova made one other point particularly clear between spoonfuls of lentil soup and forkfuls of mahi-mahi. Despite the apparent distractions, despite the millions in the bank and the impression that she might be spreading herself a bit thin, it is the forehands and the backhands and above all the victories that still matter most at age 26.
She insists that her competitive drive, the source of so many gutsy victories and polarizing shrieks, is intact.
“I don’t think I would form a new team together and that I would go through the efforts of trying to come back if I didn’t have it,” she said, her slightly sleepy eyes flashing as she leaned into the table. “It’s a lot of work, a lot of work, and I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t feel strongly about what my goals are and what I feel I can accomplish.”
She said that juggling a broad portfolio, which now includes her own candy and accessory company, Sugarpova, was nothing new.
“All these other things, these commitments, I’ve had since I was 18,” Sharapova said. “There’s so many, and for the two years I was coming back after shoulder surgery and the full year on tour before I won the French Open, I was working on Sugarpova when no one had any idea what I was doing because no one knew about the company.”
An underdog again
Sharapova, who missed the past two months of the 2013 season because of her injury, has been No. 1 and has won all four Grand Slam singles titles. But she is now No. 4 and back to being an underdog with a suspect shoulder as she and the 32-year-old Williams prepare for the season-opening Brisbane International, in Australia, starting Dec. 29.
For the moment, after extensive European travels in search of medical counsel and in support of her boyfriend, Grigor Dimitrov, Sharapova is back to shuttling between her homes in Longboat Key, on the west coast of Florida, and in Manhattan Beach, Calif.
After resuming practice in late October, she used low-pressure balls at first for serving, finally playing her first practice set in late November followed by a three-set exhibition Dec. 6 against Ana Ivanovic in Bogotá, Colombia.
“I’ve been there in much tougher times, and I came back and I got through it,” she said, referring to her shoulder surgery in 2008. “I know this is far from as serious as it was before, so that’s a huge thing.”
Lunch in Bradenton came between practices. Sharapova returned to the court in the afternoon at the nearby IMG Academy to work with Groeneveld, her new coach.
The academy, an increasingly imposing multisports complex, is where Sharapova arrived from Russia with her father, Yuri, at age 7 as an outsider with no invitation, knowing only a few words of English, including “cat.” But she is now one of the success symbols for the academy’s hundreds of full-time student-athletes who can see her on huge posters and, on occasion, in person.
Groeneveld is one of the most experienced and respected coaches in the women’s game, having worked with former Grand Slam champions like Mary Pierce and Ivanovic. In 2006, he left the precarious role of a private coach for a more secure option: coaching players who were under contract with Adidas.
But that role ended this year. “I’m still a consultant, but the program was over for me,” Groeneveld said.
“I have my academy. I have my other ventures. I have an online platform for video analysis, and I was going to focus on that. But then this came along, and I couldn’t pass it up,” he said.
A new team
Sharapova, who has made few coaching changes in her career, is now with her third coach this year. Thomas Hogstedt left, citing personal reasons, in July, and Jimmy Connors lasted just one match in August. Hogstedt is now coaching the former No. 1 player Caroline Wozniacki.
Max Eisenbud, Sharapova’s agent, has nicknamed Sharapova’s new team the United Nations. Groeneveld is Dutch; the hitting coach Dieter Kindlmann is German; the new physiotherapist Jérôme Bianchi is French; and Sharapova’s longtime physical trainer, Yutaka Nakamura, is Japanese.
Bianchi worked at length on Sharapova’s shoulder as she sat on a courtside chair before and after practice. The serve has been a stumbling block for Sharapova since she tore her rotator cuff in two places in 2008, requiring surgery that kept her off the tour for nearly a year.
This time, she said, there was no tear. “It was an impingement pain, and that started creating inflammation, but the inflammation was everywhere,” she said. “I had bursitis. I had tendinitis and then I had a bone bruise, and the problem is, you usually give it some time off and work on the strength, but the problem was everything I was doing strengthwise was hurting me.”
She said the pain — palpable on serves, on overheads, and sometimes at the finish of groundstrokes — began troubling her in earnest in May during an unseasonably cold European spring. “I don’t know how I managed to get through Madrid,” Sharapova said. “And then Rome, I was playing Sloane Stephens, and I finished the match, and I said: ‘There’s no way. My shoulder just kills. I’m serving, and I’m in a lot of pain.’
“I don’t know how I won that match. You can even go back and watch the video and see my face is totally white, because I know something is not right.”
Sharapova withdrew before the next round, citing illness instead of her shoulder, and then tried to defend her title at the French Open, where she was beaten, 6-4, 6-4, in the final by Williams, who increased her career edge over Sharapova to 14-2.
Sharapova skipped the grass-court preliminaries and had a magnetic resonance imaging test in London that she said showed an “unhealthy and clearly overused shoulder.” Sharapova was then upset in the second round of Wimbledon by Michelle Larcher de Brito and did not play again until six weeks later in Cincinnati, where she lost her opening match on Aug. 13 to Stephens.
That was her last match of the season as well as her only match with Connors, whom she soon dismissed. Inside the sport, they had been widely viewed as an odd pairing. Connors, through a representative, declined to comment on the split, but Sharapova said much of the problem had to do with her own attitude.
“Jimmy came in at the wrong time and in the wrong place,” she said. “I think when he came in post-Wimbledon, I don’t think any coach could have succeeded in the frame of mind I had at that time. Because I was going to practice, and I knew I couldn’t serve, and I knew that there was a good chance I might not play the U.S. Open.
“As an athlete, that’s tough to digest. I was not fun to be around, and it was a tough position for him.”
There have been other major changes in Sharapova’s world, none bigger than her relationship with Dimitrov, the 22-year-old Bulgarian now ranked 23rd who has long been considered an exceptional talent.
Sharapova was once engaged to the former National Basketball Association player Sasha Vujacic, but they split in 2012, the same year Sharapova won the French Open.
“I had a challenging last year with going through a breakup while winning a Grand Slam,” she said. “So it’s nice. I’m in a nice place in my life definitely, and I think I’m much more grateful now for the things I have just because I feel I’ve experienced a lot, so if I’m able to come home and be happy with someone, it’s because I’ve learned from the past.”
Sharapova will soon be on the other side of the camera for a change, taking another tennis break in February to debut as a television presenter with NBC for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. She lived in Sochi from ages 4 to 7, and her maternal grandparents and other members of her extended family still live there. Sharapova, who carried the flag for Russia at the opening ceremony in the 2012 Summer Olympics, is also expected to play a role in Sochi’s opening ceremony.
“I was planning on going anyway, and this just kind of came about,” Sharapova said of the NBC offer. “Personally, selfishly, it’s just a really good experience for me, because I’ve never done anything like that with television, and I’m keen to learn. I’ve never been to a Winter Olympics before. I’m certainly not going to be commenting on bobsledding or anything.”
‘Proud of being Russian’
Sharapova has visited Sochi frequently, most recently last year, and expressed amazement that the low-profile city she once knew is about to be a global focus. She knows that the pace of change and construction has been dizzying.
“There’s not much cultural history in Sochi, but it’s the one city where it was all about nature and its beauty, so I’m actually a little scared to see what happens to that,” she said.
Deeply attached to her parents and her heritage, Sharapova said she had never questioned her decision to represent Russia despite her American accent and addresses. She said she was not interested in politics, but she did discuss the controversy generated by a Russian law that went into effect in June. The law, viewed as anti-gay, bans “propaganda on nontraditional sexual relationships” with the aim of protecting young people.
Sharapova said she has gay and lesbian friends and believes individuals should have the opportunity to share their lives with whom they see fit.
“I think what needs to be addressed will ultimately be addressed,” she said of the law. “I think time will address this issue. It will. I’m proud of being Russian, because I believe in the true core of its history and the culture, and that’s where I grew up, and I feel very proud to be from there. But never have I said that every individual there is perfect or every law is right.”
Lunch was finished, and as Sharapova drove to practice in her luxury sport utility vehicle, the conversation turned to the journey that had begun here in Bradenton: that of a tiny girl who arrived with her father and less than $1,000 between them, and who grew up to become the world’s highest-paid female athlete with the four trophies that matter most in tennis.
“In the moment, it was such a tough transitional period, and not just in my parents’ life but for me as a 6- or 7-year-old,” she said. “And those are sometimes the moments when you’re speaking to people, and they’re like: ‘Wow. How do you even do that? That’s not real.’
“Then I think, maybe it’s not.”