WIMBLEDON, England — Among the privileges that come with winning Wimbledon is lifetime membership in the All England club, which hosts the grass-court classic each summer.
As honorary members, past champions can drop in for tea at the private club year-round. Or, if they’re competing in the prestigious Grand Slam event, they can start practicing on the manicured lawns days before the club’s wrought-iron gates open to their rivals.
Only one among this year’s women’s semifinalists enjoyed that prerogative. And Maria Sharapova exercised it, keen to gain every advantage in pursuit of a fourth major title and, with it, a return to the sport’s top ranks.
Wimbledon’s Center Court, of course, was the scene of Sharapova’s greatest triumph, where, as an unheralded 17-year-old, she crushed defending champion Serena Williams, 6-1, 6-4, for the 2004 title.
Now 24, Sharapova hasn’t been the dominant player she was since undergoing shoulder surgery in October 2008 — a procedure that forced an overhaul of her service motion, knocked her from the top 100 and tested her patience throughout a humbling recovery.
But with each round here at Wimbledon, Sharapova has looked more the favorite, raising her standard of play while higher seeds (No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, No. 2 Vera Zvonareva, No. 3 Li Na) and more decorated champions (Venus and Serena Williams) have crashed out.
Sharapova was ruthless Tuesday in dispatching Dominika Cibulkova for a place in Thursday’s semifinals, needing just 60 minutes to steamroll the diminutive Slovakian, 6-1, 6-1.
“I thought I played really solid and did the right things to win today,” said Sharapova, who hit 23 winners to Cibulkova’s three.
Earlier Tuesday, German wild card S abine Lisicki advanced with a 6-4, 6-7 (7-4), 6-1 upset of ninth-seeded Marion Bartoli of France. It was the most riveting match of a rain-soaked afternoon that was salvaged only by Center Court’s retractable roof, which enabled all of the women’s quarterfinals to be completed.
Also advancing: Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic, who defeated Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria 6-3, 6-7 (7-5), 6-2. And as night fell and the rain returned, fourth-seeded Victoria Azarenka cruised to a 6-3, 6-1 victory over Austria’s Tamira Paszek.
Azarenka will meet Kvitova in one semifinal Thursday, while Sharapova will face the hard-hitting Lisicki, who has rebounded impressively after missing nearly five months with an injured left ankle.
In many respects, Sharapova is the grand dame of Wimbledon’s semifinalists.
While the 24-year-old Russian is hardly old, the other three are 21.
Sharapova boasts 23 career titles; no one else has more than seven (Azarenka).
Sharapova has won three Grand Slam titles (Wimbledon, 2004; the U.S. Open, 2006; and the Australian Open, 2008). The others have yet to win a major.
And Sharapova is the only semifinalist yet to lose a set.
And though she’s the world’s highest paid female athlete (Forbes put her earnings at $24.5 million last August), Sharapova has a competitive fire that’s as fierce as ever.
Since age 6, her life has been programmed for athletic superiority. Shoulder surgery at 21 was the first thing to disrupt her ritual of training, competing and recuperating. And she quickly found she was ill suited to the uncertainty that followed.
“I was setting a lot of timetables for myself in terms of, ‘I want to be back for this tournament,’ and I never really met those goals,” Sharapova said. “That was really frustrating for me because I’m not very patient, and I’m very stubborn. That’s just a terrible combination when you’re going through a difficult injury.”
But she progressed nonetheless. And she’s drawing on support from a new circle of loved ones and advisers. Her father, Yuri, has bowed out of his two decades’ role as her coach, supplanted in January by Thomas Hogstedt.
And when Sharapova looks to her courtside box for affirmation at Wimbledon this year, she looks to her fiancé, Sasha Vujacic, a 6-7 guard for the New Jersey Nets.
Sharapova finds it more difficult to watch him play than to compete herself, her nerves are so wrought. And she’s struck by the different dynamics of team and individual sports.
“But at the end of the day, we’re still athletes,” Sharapova said. “We still have to put that amount of work in. There is that level of understanding of what it takes.”