Maria Sharapova overcomes hazards of sport

Gilles Simon hit a backhand during warmups, something crunched inside his neck and suddenly he felt as stiff as Frankenstein.

Simon tried massage, anti-inflammatory medication and hot cream. Nothing released the vise on his muscles. He could not swivel his head. He tried playing Roger Federer in Thursday’s quarterfinal match at the Sony Ericsson Open but had to retire after seven minutes and three hopeless games.

A crick in the neck and Simon, who often has given Federer fits, was out of the tournament.

Such are the hazards of being an athlete, whose livelihood is wholly dependent on how hard he can push his body without breaking it.

Just ask Maria Sharapova, who has had to embark on a second tennis career following shoulder surgery. She advanced to the women’s final with a willful 3-6, 6-0, 6-2 comeback over Andrea Petkovic. She stumbled through the first set, then got a little angry. She set her feet, slammed her groundstrokes into the retreating Petkovic and got her shriek cranked up to a decibel level Aerosmith would appreciate.

Sharapova was once on the superhighway to No. 1. Is she back?

“I feel like I’m finding my form,” she said. “I felt with many matches and staying healthy that I would feel better and my form would start coming back to me and my tennis, as well.”

You remember Sharapova, who moved from Russia to Bradenton after her parents fled fallout from the Chernobyl explosion and her father put her on the path to becoming a pro player.

Winner of Wimbledon at 17 and three Grand Slams before she was 21, Sharapova was pegged to dislodge the Williams sisters. She’s 6-2, blond, a glamour queen perfect for endorsements. She was the next answer for women’s tennis.

Then she felt a pinch in her shoulder. She kept playing and had an MRI that did not detect tendon tears.

“Got a little worse after that,” she said. “We caught it a little late and that’s why I think it took a little longer than it should have.”

Sharapova tried rehab for a few months but had to have surgery in the summer of 2008, seven months after winning the Australian Open. She was out of the game for almost a year.

“I actually didn’t really know if I would be back and when and where I would be, in what form, if my shoulder could handle playing in the tournaments,” she said.

But throughout the setbacks in her recovery, she was determined to give tennis another chance.

“I never looked at any options as tennis is what I’ve known since I was four years old,” she said. “It’s what I’ve done every single morning since then.”

Think of the toll of all those mornings and all those matches in a sport that demands much more power and torque than ever before. In watching some of the punishing rallies at the Sony Ericsson, it’s a wonder an arm or two doesn’t fall off onto the purple courts.

It also is a wonder that Federer has been relatively injury-free during his prime. He has never retired from a match and he has played in 45 consecutive Grand Slams. Many others — Tommy Haas (shoulder), Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (back, knee, shoulder, abdominal), Dinara Safina (back) and Gael Monfils (wrists, knees, shoulder, back, foot) — have been derailed or detoured.

“You have to listen to the signals of your body,” Federer said. “I guess it’s all together in practice and the way you live every day, how much you sleep, what you eat. Every player has their own secrets or routines.

“Sometimes I don’t even need a doctor or physio’s advice to tell me what’s good and bad for my body because I know it. I know how bad the pain feels and how much I can still push on it.”

Federer has endured. His rival, Rafael Nadal, who fought his way to a Friday semifinal against Federer with a 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 victory over Tomas Berdych, has had to cope with bothersome knees. The biggest question facing Nadal is not whether his opponents will shorten his career but whether his knees will.

Simon was undone by a pain in the neck Thursday, a recurring problem for him. Sharapova is working her way back, despite a shortened serve motion she has had to adopt to keep her shoulder from going numb.

Treading that thin line is as much a part of the game as scoring points.

“You take it for granted every day that you hit a tennis ball for a living,” she said. “And then when you can’t do it you realize how much it means to you.”