Maria Sharapova still wears her long, shimmering silver earrings. She still elevates the sound of her ground strokes, the grunts that reverberate throughout stadiums and indicate the effort needed to produce her whip-like forehands and backhands.
What Sharapova is now trying to locate is a new comfort zone with her serve. She has a rebuilt shoulder, an in-progress service motion and the firm belief that at 22, she may have some aches and pains, she may need to spend more time working out and less time just playing, but ultimately winning tennis matches is a passion that hasn't ebbed.
Although she isn't seeded, the former Wimbledon, U.S. Open and Australian Open champion will be a top draw at the L.A. Women's Tennis Championships that begin today at the Home Depot Center in Carson.
It is fellow Russian Dinara Safina who has earned the No. 1 spot in the 56-woman draw. While the top eight seeded players get first-round byes, Sharapova will play Jarmila Groth of Slovakia tonight.
It is an unfamiliar place for a woman more used to playing on Sundays instead of Mondays in these non-Grand Slam tournaments.
Sharapova needed the surgery to repair her torn right rotator cuff, and this will be her sixth tournament back on the Sony Ericcson WTA Tour. Sharapova was a Wimbledon champion at the age of 17 and was once ranked No. 1. Now she's ranked 62nd, after she was soundly beaten by Venus Williams in a quarterfinal at Palo Alto last week.
But this comeback is a work in progress, Sharapova said.
On the advice of her doctors and her coach, former ATP Tour player Michael Joyce, Sharapova has tried to shorten her service motion and eliminate extra movement with her arm and shoulder.
"Absolutely, the idea is to make serving easier on my arm," Sharapova said. "Is it where I want it to be? No. Is there still work to do? Yes. It's going to be an ongoing thing for sure."
Sharapova's fierce competitiveness and her willingness to play attacking tennis with the kind of forceful ground strokes that keep pace with the big-hitting Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, have been missed on the women's tour.
And Sharapova, whose main base is in Manhattan Beach, is remaining upbeat even if her results haven't been all positive yet. She lost in the quarterfinals to Dominika Cibulkova at the French Open and was upset by Gisela Dulko in the second round of Wimbledon, but if those were disappointments, Sharapova won't say that.
What she will say is that her time away from tennis only reinforced her love of the game. And she is aware that a 22-year-old can't rely only on her loose-limbed athletic talent and competitive attitude forever.
"For the rest of my career I'll be doing shoulder exercises," she said. "It won't be as fun as I want it to be. It's all a routine. But everyone has to do it. Everyone has injuries. It's part of the game."
Sharapova said that on the day she had surgery, while she was still groggy from the effects of anesthesia, she called Joyce.
"He was getting something to eat," Sharapova said, "and I told him to come and get me because I didn't belong there in the hospital, come take me home. But I guess I was still almost completely passed out."
Joyce, for his part, has wrestled with the remaking of Sharapova's serve.
"Before the injury," Joyce said, "her serve was a huge weapon for her and it's difficult to make a change like this. But right now her arm isn't ready to serve the way she did before the surgery and maybe it never will be and that's why we've made the adjustment.
"It's a tough thing for an athlete at Maria's level to do, to make a big change like this to something that had been second nature. She used to have a very loose, long, drawn-out motion. She had a tough serve, but her arm was going in a lot of directions. We don't have many choices at this point. We'll see what happens down the road."
In the meantime, Sharapova is just happy to be competing again.
"While I was off," she said, "I missed the game every day. That I did learn. I want to be out here very much."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
L.A. Women's Tennis Championships
Where: Home Depot Tennis Center, Carson.
When: Today through Thursday, 11 a.m. and 7 p.m.; Friday, noon and 7:30 p.m.; Saturday noon and 6:30 p.m.; Sunday noon.
TV: Tennis Channel, Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m; ESPN2, Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 7 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. (tape delay).
Top-seeded players: No. 1 Dinara Safina (Russia); No. 2 Vera Zvonareva (Russia); No. 3 Victoria Azarenka (Belarus); No. 4 Caroline Wozniacki (Denmark); No. 5 Nadia Petrova (Russia); No. 6 Ana Ivanovic (Serbia); No. 7 Dominika Cibulkova (Slovakia); No. 8 Agnieszka Radwanska (Poland).
Today's featured matches: Stadium Court, 7 p.m.: Maria Sharapova vs. Jarmila Groth; Tathiana Garbin vs. Coco Vandeweghe. Other key night matches: Ana Ivanovic vs. winner of Vania King and Sybille Bammer on Tuesday; Dinara Safina vs. winner of Daniela Hantuchova and Sabine Lisicki.
Tickets: Single session from $25 to $150. Call 1-877-234-8425 or go to www.ticketmaster.com or www.latennischamps.com.
-- Diane Pucin