MELBOURNE, Australia -- Tempering expectations is not how Maria Sharapova went from a 7-year-old Siberian girl dropped on the front steps of a Florida tennis academy to the world's richest female athlete. After missing the last two months of the 2013 season and playing three matches since August, the third-ranked Russian is keeping it real.
"I believe that being here is a great step for me," Sharapova told USA TODAY Sports on Sunday as she prepared to compete in the Australian Open, her first major since losing in the second round in Wimbledon in June and pulling the plug on her season a few weeks later because of a shoulder injury. "Of course I want to have higher expectations. I really should, because I am healthy and I'm happy to be here. But I have to moderate those expectations and be real about things and understand nothing substitutes for tennis matches.
I haven't obviously had that."
Such equivocation is a far cry from last year, much less Sharapova's take-no-prisoners career M.O. A year ago in Melbourne, Sharapova dropped only five games in five matches while romping to the quarterfinals. Expectations were high for a fifth Grand Slam tournament title, but the Russian came up flat against Li Na in the semifinals 6-2, 6-2.
The result encapsulated the first six months of her year.
The four-time Grand Slam champion would surge, winning big titles such as Indian Wells, Calif., and reaching the French Open final, only to plummet back to earth, often at the hands of her longtime nemesis, Serena Williams.
A bigger problem was Sharapova's surgically repaired right shoulder. During last year's European clay-court swing, she started to experience pain in her shoulder, which sidelined her for a year in 2008-09. She was diagnosed with bursitis.
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After rest and various treatments, her shoulder is pain-free. Her new team, including coach Sven Groeneveld and physiotherapist Jerome Bianchi, is running smoothly. Most important, the thrill of competition has not diminished, even for the world's most well-compensated female athlete, whose 2013 income Forbes estimates at $29 million.
Sharapova, who won Wimbledon at 17 in 2004, emphasized that despite the drudgery of practice, travel and hours of daily treatment to keep her shoulder healthy, winning still mattered. "It's worth it, it is," the 2008 Australian Open champ said, recalling how after her opening win at Brisbane this month she and her team engaged in a big group hug.
Growing Sharapova brand
Of course, Sharapova the brand continues to expand.
Her Sugarpova candy is now available in 25 countries, and clothes and accessories built around the various flavor names such as smitten, quirk and sassy will be available this spring.
"We're starting small but I have a long-term vision of where I want to get to eventually in terms of product," she said. "It's becoming a bigger reality than I ever thought."
Sharapova also recently inked a deal to underwrite of the International Tennis Hall of Fame's free admission program for kids under age 16.
Though she has never been to the Newport, R.I., museum, she hopes to visit soon and that her sponsorship will inspire children into the sport.
"The way that I learned is having my dad be an enthusiast — just loved tennis and picked up a racket," said Sharapova, who arrived uninvited with her father to the famed Bollietteri/IMG Academy, which became her eventual training ground.
Her ongoing struggle to solve No. 1 Williams should provide plenty of inspiration. Sharapova hasn't been able to solve the Williams puzzle lately.
Sharapova has not beaten the 17-time Grand Slam winner since 2004 and now trails Williams 15-2 in career meetings, including a 6-2, 7-6 (9-7) loss in the Brisbane semifinals.
Williams, 32, also manhandled Sharapova in the 2007 Australian Open final 6-2, 6-1 and topped her most recently in a major in last year's French Open final. Sharapova sees each meeting as an opportunity.
"I mean, you have to realize there are a lot of steps to get to the position of getting to play her," she said. "It's always nice to know that I'm probably going to be facing her in later rounds. If I keep setting up opportunities to get there, I'm consistent enough and good enough to set up an opportunity to beat her. That's the way I look at it."
Asked when opportunity simply becomes discouragement, she said: "Hasn't yet, and hopefully never will."
Off court, the rivals have shared tense moments.
At Wimbledon, Sharapova called out Williams after comments by the American in a Rolling Stone article appeared to take swipes at the "black heart" of Sharapova's boyfriend, 22-year-old Grigor Dimitrov.
Sharapova shot back with pointed remarks about Williams' reported relationship with her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, 43, who is not yet divorced and is the father of two children.
Williams apologized, but a chill persists. Sharapova said Sunday that the issue was behind her. "From my end, I've said everything I've wanted to say," she said flatly. "I think both of us have moved on from this. We have a new season ahead of us. ... There is nothing for us to talk about except what we do on the court."
Life away from the court has also been a source of comfort.
Sharapova spent "quite a bit of time" in the fall with 22nd-ranked Dimitrov when he was in Europe competing and she was recuperating.
The bonding helped solidify the still-young relationship, said Sharapova, who was once engaged to former NBA player Sasha Vujacic.
Headed to Sochi to work Olympics
Sharapova has been rekindling another relationship, too – with her hometown of Sochi in preparation for February's Winter Olympics.
Sharapova will be behind the camera broadcasting for NBC, shooting what she said was three features on the city's cultural life, possibly with veteran correspondent Mary Carillo or TV personality Ryan Seacrest, plus some studio segments with Bob Costas.
Little intimidates the steely-eyed Sharapova, but she admitted without hesitation that the broadcasting gig made her nervous.
"I have not done any homework," she said with a high-pitched laugh. "I actually like spur of the moment-type things. When I do interviews I don't like to look at the questions beforehand. It's always good to come a little bit unprepared because then it's a lot more natural. In everything I do that's the way I function."
Returning to a place she spent ages 4 to 7 and where some of her extended family still live "will bring back nice childhood memories," she said.
Sharapova, Russia's flag bearer at the London Olympics, will also play a role – she won't divulge what it is – in the opening ceremony.
As for some of the other sensitive issues facing Sochi, among them security and the country's anti-gay legislation, Sharapova tried to stay above the fray.
She said she was concerned about security but no more so than at any other big, international event around the world.
Of athletes protesting the recent laws against "gay propaganda," Sharapova said: "I think everyone should have their freedom to do what they want."
After an ill-fated and brief coaching experiment with Jimmy Connors last summer, Sharapova said she has high hopes for her association with new coach Groeneveld.
A native of the Netherlands, Groeneveld has worked with a number No. 1s such as Ana Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniacki, both as a private coach and as part of Adidas' player development program.
"Sven comes into this picture having coached against me many, many years," she said. "I really liked that going in. I like the direction he wanted to take me the first few times we met. It was a very seamless transition."
Sharapova could get a test of her Grand Slam readiness in the first round Tuesday when she faces off against No. 48 Bethanie Mattek-Sands of the USA.
Earlier this month, Mattek-Sands upset fifth-ranked Agniezska Radwanska at Sydney, though had to retire the next round against Madison Keys with a lower-back injury.
The No. 3 seed would not face Williams, ranked No. 1 and on a 22-match winning streak, and a heavy favorite to win a sixth Australian Open title, until the final. That's a long way off, but ESPN analyst Darren Cahill said Sharapova can't be counted out.
"Maria can quite easily find herself on an easy path into the second week," Cahill wrote in an e-mail. "She's used to crushing early round opponents. She's also refocused with a new coach and fitness regime. I believe she has a realistic chance of winning."
Sharapova agreed. "I've been in those situations," she said of her sparse match play. "If I train well enough at a certain level for a period of time, I can go out there and find my way.
"That's what I'll have to do."