She is a woman who needs no introduction. But her "brand" - as she refers to her global endorsement power - and more than $12 million in career prize money won't get Maria Sharapova very far in this year's U.S. Open unless she can expedite major adjustments in her serving motion necessitated by last year's shoulder surgery.
Sharapova's run to the finals in last week's Toronto tournament, which featured an Open-quality field, including No. 1 Dinara Safina and both Williams sisters, was as encouraging as any of her results since returning to the women's tour in May. Though soundly beaten by No. 4 Elena Dementieva for the Toronto title, Sharapova boosted her own recovering world ranking from 49th to 30th and proclaimed it "a really great week for me [and] good preparation" for the year's final Grand Slam event.
She still is only 22 and already has three major championship trophies on her figurative mantle - 2004 Wimbledon, '06 U.S. Open and '08 Australian Open. She was only 17 when she won Wimbledon, only 20 when she first reached No. 1, yet she acknowledged during her previous tournament in Los Angeles that, "for the rest of my career, I'll be doing shoulder exercises. It won't be as fun as I want it to be. It's all a routine. But everyone has to do it. Everyone has injuries. It's part of the game."
Tennis insiders, aware of Sharapova's off-the-court marketing commitments, fully accept her keening intensity and dedication to shouldering her way back to the top of her sport. But last October's operation to repair a torn right rotator cuff has forced her to unsettle the single stroke that theoretically must be struck the same way every time: the serve.
Working with coach Michael Joyce, Sharapova has shortened her serving motion, and while she searches for a comfort level and maximum efficiency with her re-education program, she has suffered mightily from a plague of double faults - 13 in her Los Angeles quarterfinal, 16 in the semis, then 12 and 17 in two of her Toronto matches.
Robert Landsdorp, her former coach, told the Los Angeles Times that Sharapova "is fighting so hard and she's such a competitor, but I don't understand this serve. You can see her lack of faith in the serve is taking its toll. The service problem is affecting everything else."
In her semifinal loss to 10th-ranked Flavia Pennetta in Los Angeles, Sharapova committed 63 unforced errors in three sets, and Joyce reminded of the "big change . . . to something that had been second nature" as Sharapova has gone from a loose, long, drawn-out serving motion to the new style meant to reduce aggravation in the shoulder by minimizing extra movement in the arm and shoulder.
"It's coming back from something that's a pretty serious injury with the shoulder," Sharapova told reporters in Toronto. "My serve is one of my biggest weapons and coming off the injury, tweaking your motion a little bit, it takes a lot of time for adjustments. You do something for your whole career, since you were young and you're used to doing it a certain way, then all of a sudden you have to change it at a very elite level. It takes time."
In her seven tournaments since rejoining the tennis tour on May 18, she has advanced at least to the quarterfinals six times, to the semis three times and the final once. But even if she and Joyce properly have addressed the key question - how do you solve a problem like Maria's? - they cannot predict how quickly, or thoroughly, it will be answered.