Maria Sharapova’s reserves of defiance have often seemed limitless. But that tank may be running close to empty, judging by Tuesday’s straight-sets defeat by Donna Vekic. The result will send her tumbling down the rankings ladder, to the lowly rung of No 366 in the world.
Retirement is not a word that Sharapova has had much truck with in the past. But when she was asked if she planned to return to next year’s Australian Open, she admitted that she had no idea where her career was going. “It’s tough for me to tell what’s going to happen in 12 months’ time,” she said.
To be sure of harnessing Sharapova’s star power, Tennis Australia was obliged to hand her a wild card into the main draw. How times have changed for a woman who used to start each event among the leading contenders. She has not won a match since Cincinnati in August.
In the interview room, she was asked several times about her plans for the forthcoming weeks and months. She could offer little in response. “I can speak about my struggles and the things that I’ve gone through with my shoulder,” she said, after her 6-3, 6-4 defeat. “But it’s not really in my character to.” Was she confident that she could sort out this long-term injury, which dates back all the way to a rotator-cuff tear in 2008? “I don’t have a crystal ball to tell you if I can or if I will,” said Sharapova, who has already undergone four operations on this vital joint. “But I would love to, yeah.”
Commentating on ESPN on Tuesday, the Seventies legend Chris Evert predicted an imminent announcement. Although one imagines that Sharapova might want to play one last Wimbledon before she calls time.
“I don’t think she can get back to the top of the game,” said Evert. “Her shoulder has a lot of wear and tear. It has never been the same since the first surgery. At 32, she has had an illustrious career. She has been playing since she was 15 years old. And she wants to have a life too.
“She is a very well-rounded person,” Evert added. “She went to classes at Harvard business school. There are other things she wants to do. When Maria retires, there are not going to be any fanfares as far as she is concerned. She will slip off into the night.”
It is unclear what Sharapova still has to play for. At 32, she has already notched a career Grand Slam and a silver medal at the London Olympics. And while the Tokyo Games are a clear target for some of her former rivals – including Venus Williams – she has already said that she will not be participating.
Her start to this season has been particularly miserable. Apart from losing to American No 8 Jennifer Brady in Brisbane a couple of weeks ago, she wound up in hospital after suffering a bad dose of a gastric virus. Now this latest defeat has cost her around two-thirds of her rankings points, many of which she earned with her run to the fourth round here last year. You have to wonder if, by struggling on, Sharapova is beginning to damage her own brand.