Maria Sharapova's 'internal fire' burning bright at Mubadala World Tennis Championship

Russian star looking to get back to top form after frustrating couple of years

Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Maria Sharapova has achieved so much during her tennis career that even if she decided to call it quits, her place in the history books is already cemented.

There is the career Grand Slam – the most recent of just 10 women to win all four major titles – the 21 weeks she spent at the top of the world rankings, the 36 career titles, the Fed Cup glory with Russia, and the Olympic medal.

During the height of her powers, Sharapova was the highest-paid female athlete in the world for 11 consecutive years, a transcendent star whose appeal went far beyond the tennis court.

Given all she has accomplished, it makes the past two years all the more frustrating for Sharapova. Following her return in April 2017 from a doping suspension – a ban which was reduced to 15 months after the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled Sharapova had committed "no significant fault" – injury has prevented her from reclaiming her place among the upper echelons of the WTA Tour.

While 2018 was significantly disrupted, last season was worse, the persistent shoulder issue limiting the Russian to just 15 matches in 2019. So, as she prepares for the grind of another year on tour – her 18th – where does she find her motivation to set again, particularly in light of recent setbacks?

“I really love what I do,” Sharapova said, offering a simple reminder that beyond the superstar status, the successful businesswoman, and philanthropist, she is first and foremost a tennis player. “You can see that when I am on the court and when I do have the chance to compete, I really enjoy being there.

“I have a great purpose for what I do. I have big goals and dreams for life after tennis, but I still have that internal fire and motivation – all I have on my mind when I wake up is getting on my sports gear, going out and working to be a better tennis player.”

________________

Top stars in Abu Dhabi

________________

A fierce and laser-focused competitor, Sharapova’s “internal fire” was clear for everyone to see on Thursday evening, when she competed in the women’s match at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi.

Taking on Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic, Sharapova displayed all of her trademark grit by fighting back from breaks down in both sets to win 6-4, 7-5. She trailed 0-3 and then 2-4 in the opening set and twice clawed her way back into the contest, before reeling off four straight games to take the first set.

The second set took a similar pattern, with Tomljanovic moving into a 4-2 lead, only for Sharapova to win five of the next six games to seal the win.

Sharapova was hitting the ball with plenty of aggression and her serve was working well, and she should take plenty of encouragement from her first match action for four months.

Having not played any competitive tennis since her first-round loss to Serena Williams at the US Open in August, it was a significant step forward for Sharapova. However, with the new season and the Australian Open fast approaching, she is remaining cautious.

“I’m definitely looking forward to going to Australia and seeing how things go, see how my body holds up there,” she said. “It’s tough to tell as I barely played any events last year and that start-and-stop was one of the most challenging parts of the year.”

Now 32 years old and having learned plenty about her mind and body during these injury-hit years, Sharapova has developed a new level of self-awareness as to what is required to rediscover her best form and fitness on the tennis court.

“When I was younger, I certainly didn’t think I would be playing past 30 years old, but you never know where your career and life takes you,” she said. “Every athlete that is closer to the end of their career than the beginning has to go through those stages. As long as you have the willpower and you are smart – it’s about finding the right combination.

“I can only speak for myself but personally it’s something I’ve loved doing since I was a young girl. So, from a mindset perspective, I still have the motivation to keep going.

“As I said, you have to balance that with being smart, so your output is in line with your achievements and where you see yourself – and that has been my toughest measure in the last couple of years. But there is certainly all the desire and measures being taken to get me back there.”