Is Maria Sharapova, former world number one and five-time Grand Slam champion, finished?
After losing in the first round at the Australian Open Tuesday, she sounded and appeared to be authentically dejected in her post-match interview.
“I don’t know. I don’t know,“ she began, after being asked if she would be back to Melbourne, according to the tournament’s website. She’d lost 6-3, 6-4 to 19th seeded Donna Vekic, a blonde baseline basher sculpted in the image of none other than Sharapova.
This was the third consecutive major Sharapova had lost in the first round of a major.
“I was fortunate to get myself to be here and thankfully Craig [Tiley, tournament director] and the team allowing me to be a part of this event. It’s tough for me to tell in 12 months time [whether I’ll play here].”
She was entered in the draw as a wild card.
In her post-match press conference, Sharapova spoke from a personal perspective at times, something she ordinarily doesn’t do. She usually relies more on You have to keep fighting and You have to get back into the game and other platitudes, which have kept the press and fans (to a degree) from really getting to know the tennis star.
“I don’t have a crystal ball to tell you if I can or if I will, but I would love to,” she said, after being asked if she could get her body in shape enough to play a regular season.
Then, she reverted to her distancing third-person narrative:
“There is no way to get out of it except to keep believing in yourself, because if you do do all the right things and you don’t believe in yourself, then that’s probably a bad formula.”
Soon after that, she admitted to not knowing her schedule after Australia or whether she’d play “smaller events.”
Sharapova’s ranking will plummet to around 360 after the tournament. She’s 32 as well, which certainly isn’t the oldest on tour. That honor belongs to Venus Williams, who will be 40 in June and lost in the first round on Monday to 15-year-old American Coco Gauff.
It seems that players such as Vekic and Gauf have Sharapova’s and Williams’s number on court. Combine that pressure with personal doubt, and they’ve just swallowed two pills without positive medicinal value.
Sharapova played seven tournaments last year due to a continuously cranky right shoulder, which was first surgically repaired in 2008. Last year, however, she had another procedure that precluded her from playing Miami and Roland Garros, which she had won twice.
Sharapova has been coached by the best, her longest-running coach being Michael Joyce. Since their split, she has taken advice from Sven Groeneveld, Tomas Hogstedt and most recently Ricardo Piatti. She said she would continue working with the Italian, which indicates that an abrupt exit from tennis isn’t in the near future.
However, she also mentioned that she wasn’t sure if she’d return to Italy, where she’d been training with Piatti for months.
“I’ve surrounded myself with a great team because you can’t always get to where you want to go alone,” she said, when asked about one of her better career decisions.
Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’ coach, analyzed Sharapova’s match on ESPN:
“She was an incredible competitor, but I don’t see that anymore. At some point you have to win matches because if you don’t it affects your performance. She’s [also] struggling to move and move fast enough on court.”
Bethanie Mattek-Sands, also on ESPN, tried to put Sharapova’s loss and future career in perspective.
“Who knows if this is the last we’re going to see of her or if she’s going to continue playing. I think every player wants to do it on their own terms. Some want to go out on top, some want to fade in to the darkness. But, we’ll see.”
Sharapova’s voice, during the press conference, was hushed with no inflections as she answered questions. Her passion for the game and her career was vacant. In fact, she looked vulnerable and seemed to feel that uncomfortable emotion.
Not knowing her schedule for the upcoming season. Not moving well on court against Vekic. Still referencing her shoulder and her lack of match play. None of these things point to confidence, a rapid recovery and a steady rise in the rankings, or a commitment to forge ahead.
But Maria Sharapova doesn’t give up, on court or in her business ventures. If she decides to call it quits, she has avenues paved for a full life.
The thing is, she is most comfortable on the court. That’s the Maria she knows. That’s the Maria fans know. How to transition to a life off court could be the question she’ll ponder most, because she has no idea what that Maria would be like, and that could be a scary decision.