NEW YORK: Ten years after becoming world No.1 for the first time as a bubbly 18-year-old, Maria Sharapova returns to the US Open, eager to recapture the magic of her 2006 title run.
But the world’s richest sportswoman has a stack of hurdles to overcome at Flushing Meadows — physical, emotional and psychological.
At 28, Sharapova is now the third oldest woman in the top 20 and the grind of the tour has returned to bite her at the most inconvenient time.
An upper leg injury has kept her off tour since her Wimbledon semifinals defeat to nemesis Serena Williams.
She will also be playing her first tournament since the break-up of her two-year romance with men’s tour star Grigor Dimitrov.
Apart from the daily routine of practice, Sharapova has spent the week building up to the season’s final Grand Slam showcasing her business talents.
A Manhattan photoshoot with Nike was followed rapidly by a promotion for her Sugarpova candy brand at the city’s iconic Bloomingdale’s store.
But once the commercial side is wrapped up, there will be the serious business of rekindling her love affair with the US Open, a relationship desperately in need of counseling.
Since her 2006 title win over Justine Henin in the finals, Sharapova has failed to return to the championship match.
There have been three third round losses, two in the last-16 and a semifinals run in 2012. She sat out the 2008 and 2013 events through injury.
“I think I will have to take it a match at a time and obviously can’t have too many expectations,” said Sharapova after her leg injury forced her out of the Toronto and Cincinnati warm-up tournaments.
“It’s not the most ideal situation, but it is what it is for this particular year.”
What is also not ideal is seeing long-time rival Serena Williams comfortably bludgeoning her way through the record books.
The American world number one is on the verge of the first calendar Grand Slam since Steffi Graf in 1988.
Victory would also give her a 22nd Grand Slam title.
Sharapova’s majors total, however, has firmly stalled at five.
Her 35 career titles — almost half of which were won in her teens — are overshadowed by the American’s 69.
Williams also even tops the Twitter battle with just over five million followers compared to the Russian’s 1.7 million.
The two women have never met at the US Open which is just as well for Sharapova whose record against Williams now stands at 2-18 with both her wins coming back in 2004.
Her most recent defeat, a straight-sets semi-final mauling at Wimbledon, was her 17th in succession at the hands of the world’s best player.
“I think when she plays against me, she certainly does take you out of your game,” admitted Sharapova.
“That’s why she’s in the position she’s in. I don’t think it’s a secret. I think she knows against certain players she needs to bring out her best. The way that she plays myself, maybe a few others, she has to bring it on the line.
“We’re not able to do that as consistently as she does.”