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IMG Academy alumna Maria Sharapova is back in the game, and driven as ever

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Zoe Howard (left) won the Sugarpova sweepstakes and got to meet and hit with her favorite player, Maria Sharapova during the 2013 Eddie Herr International Junior Tennis Championships

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 says 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 United States 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 last 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, in two weeks.

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 payers 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.”

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.

Tennis is not the only sport that unites them: After practice they formed a circle and kicked a small soccer ball in the air. Those who faltered were required to do push-ups or, in Sharapova’s case, jumps to avoid straining her shoulder. There was a lot of ribbing and laughter, much of it directed at Eisenbud’s foot skills, but the tennis session that preceded this was, as Sharapova prefers, no nonsense.

Groeneveld focused on her baseline footwork and on getting more accuracy and punch from her angled volleys. After coaching against her for a decade, he has also been having her work at defending stroke patterns that her opponents have learned to exploit. The serve has been a priority, with the emphasis on making Sharapova’s motion more fluid, particularly on the follow-through, in an effort to preserve her shoulder.

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 strength-wise was hurting me.”

She said the pain — palpable on serves, on overheads and sometimes at the finish of ground strokes — began troubling her in earnest in May during an unseasonably cold European spring.

“I think when you have surgery on any part of your body, it’s never going to be the same,” she said. “I think for me, it was a lot of matches, and my thing is I’m very loose-jointed, so changes come, change of weather, change of balls, I am quite sensitive to that, and I think everything just kind of piled on.”

Sharapova said: “I don’t know how I managed to get through Madrid. 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 defended 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 Mason, Ohio, where she lost her opening match Aug. 13 to Stephens.

Wrong Timing

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.

“I just think Jimmy and Maria were very, very similar in the sense they were great competitors, great fighters, intense ground strokers,” said Chris Evert, the former No. 1 who was once engaged to Connors and is now an ESPN analyst. “I just don’t know what Jimmy would have brought to the table. He would really help someone with intensity, but she already had that.”

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.”

Sharapova nonetheless dismissed him rather than take a break and ask him to return when she was ready.

“Even though he did commit to more weeks than I thought he could, it still wasn’t a full-time schedule,” she said. “And when I started looking at the options I had, which in the tennis world are not so large, and what I wanted to do moving forward, I thought Sven was going to be a good option.”

Sharapova said that she and Connors, one of the most successful players in history, remained in contact and that she had “a tremendous amount of respect” for him. She acknowledged that the abrupt ending put Connors in an awkward spot but said that she was just not comfortable.

“You have to believe in your thinking and what you feel,” she said. “If you don’t believe in what you’re doing, time goes quickly in the tennis world.”

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 N.B.A. player Sasha Vujacic, but they split in 2012, the 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.”

She added: “It’s nice to see somebody that’s next to me that is building their own life and becoming their own individual, respecting me at what I’m doing, giving me my life but being a huge part of it. It’s a very difficult combination to find in any relationship, but I’ve been really blessed to have that.”

Sharapova took on Williams at Wimbledon this year after Williams, in a Rolling Stone article, was quoted mocking an unnamed top-five player, presumed by the author to be Sharapova, as well as her boyfriend with a “black heart.”

At a Wimbledon news conference, Sharapova responded, “If she wants to talk about something personal, maybe she should talk about her relationship, and her boyfriend that was married, and is getting a divorce and has kids.”

That was a reference to Williams’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou.

“The thing is,” Sharapova said at lunch, “I didn’t say anything that was not true, so it’s not like some secret she told me that I gave out to the world. I said something that everyone knew, except no one expected me to say it.”

Told that many people were stunned that she had said it, Sharapova was caught by surprise herself. She started laughing so hard that she disappeared from view as she slumped, clinging to her fork, and slowly sank below the surface of the table. When she reappeared, she quickly grew serious again.

“On the court, I have the utmost respect for her; I really do,” she said of Williams.

And off the court?

“It’s different,” she said. “I don’t know what it is, but it’s different, and to me, even though that tennis is such a huge part of our lives, at the end it’s such a small part of our lives, and I value so many other more important things in life than just the sport.”

Sharapova conceded that her Wimbledon comment had perhaps not been her classiest decision.

“Maybe not; I’ve kept my mouth shut a lot of times in my career, you know, but I’m an open book really,” she said. “The things I say at my press conferences, I don’t lie. I don’t pretend. I respect where respect is due. I speak bad of my game and of myself when I feel I deserve it. I’m very honest.”

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 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 do. Sharapova, who carried the flag for Russia at the opening ceremony in the 2012 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 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,” she said, “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.”

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 antigay, bans “propaganda on nontraditional sexual relationships” with the aim of protecting young people.

Sharapova said she had gay and lesbian friends and believed 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.”

 

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