Sharapova and the house of pain

— -- If Maria Sharapova were a mountaineer, she would undoubtedly specialize in free-climbing vertical rock faces. If she were a swimmer, her chosen discipline probably would be free diving. If she weren't otherwise occupied at Wimbledon in early June, Sharapova likely would be found at the Fiesta de San Fermin, running with the bulls while half-cocked on sangria.

Is there another tennis player with a death wish as profound as that of Sharapova?

The urge overwhelmed her again Wednesday at the Australian Open, where she slashed through a 6-1 first set against qualifier Alexandra Panova in a dizzying 26 minutes and then promptly gave away the lead and more -- much more. At one point, Panova led 1-6, 6-4, 4-1, 40-15, which is where Sharapova must have decided the thrill of peering into the abyss is surpassed only by the titillation of not quite flinging herself in. Thus, Sharapova once again survived after weathering two match points, with Panova serving at 5-4 before she closed out her fellow Russian 7-5 in the third.

Sometimes you have to wonder if Sharapova's first love is the dreaded "choking game," rather than the game of tennis.

We've witnessed Sharapova's penchant for living dangerously too often to count. Her game can devolve from brilliant to miserable in a matter of minutes. She's a regular Houdini, given to pummeling opponents and then inviting them to put her in handcuffs, lock her in a chest and fling her overboard. At about the time you've decided she's a goner, Sharapova comes bobbing up to the surface and waves.

It must be interesting to be Sharapova; there's never a dull (or silent) moment. She has a unique way of achieving gratification through suffering -- a fair measure of it self-inflicted.

But it isn't all psychological. Her two shoulder injuries have hampered her, mentally and physically. She might be a megastar and marketing sensation, but she still lives mainly in a house of pain, never quite sure when her shoulder might blow up and end her career. That Serena Williams has made a habit of routinely humiliating her only advances the thought that, rich and famous as she is, Sharapova doesn't feel quite right if she isn't fighting for her life.

Perhaps you've noticed Sharapova never looks more alive than when she is deep in a crisis. When you work as hard as she does, playing really well is merely what you're supposed to do -- and where's the fun in that? Maybe the real reward is you get to unlock doors to heightened states of the kind Sharapova seems to slip into during her furious comebacks. If winning is fun, doing so when all hope seems gone has to be exhilarating.

All of these impulses and tendencies might have special resonance these two weeks and throughout this year, for Sharapova once again is within striking distance of the prized No. 1 ranking -- a position in which she claims to have little immediate interest. The other day in a news conference, she said of top-ranked Serena and her recent troubles, "You can't say someone is on the edge of the cliff when they are No. 1 in the world. I just want to focus on my matches and competing well and being the best player out there. I want to start the year well."

Sharapova admits only to modest goals, and she's been very cagey when it comes to talk of a rivalry with Serena (who leads their head-to-head 16-2 and has won every meeting of the past decade). It's a tricky situation, of course, for while Williams has dominated Sharapova convincingly, the junior partner in the rivalry has demonstrated she towers over all the other WTA stars when it comes to her competitive verve. It's not a matter of Serena leading the race by miles; it's Serena ahead of Sharapova by miles, with the Russian leading the rest of the bunched pack by a smaller yet still whopping margin.

Keep in mind, Sharapova can emerge from this Australian Open with the No. 1 ranking locked up. That's how close she is to Williams in the ranking points tables. Don't for a moment think Sharapova is indifferent to that possibility, much as she might downplay her hopes. Like any top player who has dodged match-point bullets, Sharapova will proceed in Melbourne with an aura of, if not exactly invincibility (not while Serena is around), at least a warm glow of predestination.

This has been a long time coming, and even Sharapova's fascination with the abyss might not be powerful enough to prevent her attaining that top ranking.