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Maria Sharapova advances, but it's a struggle

She reaches the semifinals at the BNP Paribas Open, but her comeback from injuries still hasn't become smooth.

March 18, 2011|Bill Dwyre

At the moment, in the career of tennis star Maria Sharapova, the fame is better than the game.

She is an international celebrity. People click onto her website, and Internet news stories about her, with the frequency they do Tiger Woods. Some days even Barack Obama.

It is one thing being able to hit backhands and forehands well enough to wins millions of dollars and three Grand Slam tournaments, but to do so before your 21st birthday and to look like a fashion model in the process is to have the world in the palm of your hand.

Prize money from tennis is nice, but nowhere near what clothing deals with Nike bring, nor TV commercials for cameras and newspaper ads for watches.

Nor does it hurt that the guy who just bought you an expensive engagement ring has a bit of his own celebrity, and even though Sasha Vujacic is no longer a part of the Lakers after his trade to New Jersey, the pair will keep TMZ hustling during hand-holding shopping trips in Manhattan Beach.

That's where Sharapova, a Russian native, lives part of the year. And it's close enough to Hollywood to be a perfect fit.

All this, and she's only 23.

But the game of tennis, which put her on life's red carpet, is the great equalizer.

Thursday, she made her way into the semifinals of the tournament most tennis people consider the fifth major, the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells. Friday night, she will play No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, whose ranking status is something Sharapova achieved way back in August 2005, at age 18. If Sharapova wins, WTA Tour mathematics likely will place her back in the top 10.

This should all be good, uplifting. And a title here, or maybe even just a win over Wozniacki, would certainly be all of that and more.

But right now, it is a struggle for this star.

Her match against unheralded Shuai Peng of China took three sets, two hours and 22 minutes, and featured more gift-giving than a wedding shower. That Sharapova won, 6-2, 5-7, 6-3, was only part of the story. She hit 13 double faults, made numerous errors, and continues to struggle with her confidence when she steps to the service line.

She played a decent first set, as Peng adjusted to the swirling winds and the huge stadium. But then Sharapova came apart at 2-1 of the second set, carrying the game in a platter to Peng with three double faults. At 5-6, Sharapova double faulted once, sent a shot long with Peng standing across the net with a broken racket string and then slapped a forehand wide on Peng's set point.

Most of the time, it was ugly tennis, and was a further negative for spectators who had tickets for Thursday afternoon's session and started their day with Victoria Azarenka defaulting with a hip injury at 0-3 to Wozniacki and Tommy Robredo never even leaving the locker room, defaulting his men's quarterfinal match with a leg injury to Juan Martin del Potro.

So the first real return on the ticket purchase was Sharapova's 3 p.m. quarterfinal.

To her credit, Sharapova did not try to sugarcoat things.

"I felt like I was playing really well for the first set and a half," she said, "and then, you know, I let her back in the game."

Sharapova's tennis status has slipped, for the most part, because of serious injuries to her right shoulder and right wrist. She didn't play singles for 10 months, starting in August 2008, and her ranking slipped to No. 126.

The road back has been long and winding, and her advance to the semifinals here is a bright spot, not just for her, but for a currently needy women's pro tour.

Serena Williams is currently recovering from a serious medical condition and her ETA back on the tour is anybody's guess. Same with injured sister Venus. And then top player Kim Clijsters had to default out of this event with a bad shoulder, and though she seemed optimistic, you never know.

Then there was the general unraveling of the women's bracket here.

By Tuesday, seeded players No. 2 through No. 7 had already departed. The women's semifinals will match No. 1 Wozniacki against No. 16 Sharapova, and No. 23 Yanina Wickmayer against No. 15 Marion Bartoli. Tennis fans want to see the stars. The sales pitch that says "Guess which unheralded player wins this week" doesn't work.

Sharapova isn't unheralded, just not quite sharp enough yet to be a prime-time player. And she knows it.

"Right now, the goal is I'm happy that I'm playing matches," she said, "and I just want to keep doing that on a more consistent basis. And doing it on a healthy basis, as well."

For Sharapova, it turns out that fame isn't as fleeting as a dependable second serve.

Etc. …

In a late-night thriller, No. 1 Rafael Nadal survived a barrage of service bombs by 6-foot-10 Ivo Karlovic of Croatia to win, 5-7, 6-1, 7-6 (7). Karlovic, whose serves move like a Porsche and feel like a Mack truck, played a wonderful match, survived two match points in the tiebreaker and finally hit a forehand wide after Nadal had somehow returned yet another service boomer. Nadal celebrated by running to the middle of the court and leaping in the air like an 8-year-old on Christmas morning.

The much-anticipated semifinal doubles matchup between team Roger Federer and Team Rafael Nadal has come to pass. Federer and his Swiss gold medal partner Stanislas Wawrinka made their way into the match against Nadal and Spanish partner Marc Lopez by beating Mark Knowles and Michal Mertinak, 6-1, 7-5. That has created a rare Friday night session, doubles on the main court, starting at 6.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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