In her exclusive WTA column, Navratilova discusses Maria Sharapova's form and examines what it will take to get the five-time Slam champion back to the very top of the sport.
Martina Navratilova
March 2, 2018

Maria Sharapova's in a pickle - she's losing early in tournaments and she's low on confidence - and it's making the locker-room behave like piranhas. The other players know she's vulnerable at the moment and sense an opportunity; they're ready to pounce.

Sharapova's such a confidence player. The way she plays, she has to impose herself on her opponent and on the match, and exude confidence - whether she feels it or not. In the past, she has been able to talk herself into being confident even when she wasn't. But it will be harder and harder for her to do this if she keeps on losing in the early rounds.

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The difficulty for Sharapova now is that the locker-room is collectively high on confidence when they play against her. It happens to everyone at some stage. In the past, when Serena Williams had a tough match, everyone else then thought: 'Oh, maybe I now have a chance.' That's what Sharapova is going through now, with a pattern of losing early and kind of indirectly giving encouragement and confidence to future opponents. Once players drawn against her would have thought to themselves, 'Oh damn, I've got Maria', but now it's quite the opposite as the players are saying to themselves, all thanks to this collective confidence, 'Oh good, I'm playing Maria.'

“Once players drawn against her would have thought to themselves, 'Oh damn, I've got Maria', but now it's quite the opposite.”
Martina Navratilova

Attitude is so much of tennis, and the rest of the field wants that prized scalp and they end up playing above their level. Previously, those players would have thought they could have perhaps won a set off Sharapova, and now they're thinking they can win the match. And that makes it even trickier for Sharapova in the early rounds of a tournament to get her confidence back, and that can create a vicious circle.

Once you've lost your aura and attitude, it's hard to get it back anyway and now it’s even harder as players are playing even better than they ought to. That makes it even more difficult winning those early rounds, getting that self-belief back and putting the lower ranked players in their place, so to speak.

It's not as if Sharapova's doing anything wrong. But there's such a small margin between winning and losing matches on the tour, and the way she plays the game the margins are even smaller. It doesn't help that her serve isn't as much of a weapon as it was when she was much younger. It should be a weapon but at worst you can sense her thinking: 'Is it going to go in?' and at best not going for the big serves in order to not have to hit her second serve, thus leaving a little off the table. Certainly, when things go south for her a little bit, she can't really get herself out of trouble with big serves the way that Serena Williams and other players can.

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Martina Navratilova, Maria Sharapova (Camerawork USA/World TeamTennis)

So there's a little seed of doubt in Sharapova's head, or she's trying to press a little more because she senses her opponent has raised her level. So perhaps she's hitting the ball a little shorter, or maybe not quite as hard as before, or maybe she's missing wide when it was going in before. It's cumulative stuff that happens that makes it that more difficult to get over it and get through it.

Sharapova loves competing, she loves everything that comes with being a professional tennis player, and she actually thrives on that. She has had a great pay-off for so many years. But now that the pay-off is smaller it's bound to be harder to keep getting motivated. You could say that the night is young and she hasn't yet had a full year back on the tour after returning from her 15-month suspension last April. But she's getting older and that makes things more difficult. Sharapova has a great attitude as always, but it's going to be a long climb back up, there's no doubt about it.

On the other hand, if Sharapova has one great tournament, the players will be thinking 'Ah oh, OK, she's back'. We shall see. I hope that Sharapova will be back, and I think she will be, but I just don't think it's going to happen overnight.