Where does Maria go from here? Sharapova to drop outside of Top 350

Where does Maria go from here? Sharapova to drop outside of Top 350

The 2008 Australian Open champion, who was awarded a wild card at this year's event, was defeated by No. 19 seed Donna Vekic, 6-3, 6-4, on Tuesday in Melbourne.

Despite a sharp decline in her fortunes, Maria Sharapova has retained her status as one of the most renowned athletes in the world. The 32-year-old, currently residing at No. 145, needed a wild card to make it into the main draw at the 2020 Australian Open. She played only 15 matches in 2019, finishing with a disconcerting 8-7 match record. Her last year as a force in the game was in 2015, when she was runner-up to Serena Williams in Melbourne and finished the season as the fourth ranked woman in the world.

A loss on Tuesday in the first round—a year after she reached the fourth round of the Happy Slam—would have her projected to fall more than 200 places outside of the world’s Top 350. Which is exactly what happened.

"I was fortunate to get myself to be here and thankfully to Craig and the team allowing me to be part of this event," Sharapova said after the match, when asked if this may be her final Australian Open. "It's tough for me to tell what's going to happen in 12 months' time."

Sharapova was gone for the game for much of 2016 and well into 2017, forced away for taking a performance-enhancing drug. And ever since her return, Sharapova has been unable to recapture her old swagger. She is one of only six women in the Open Era to secure a career Grand Slam, capturing Wimbledon in 2004, the U.S. Open in 2006, the Australian Open in 2008 and a pair of French Open crowns in 2012 and 2014. Sharapova is in elite company by virtue of that achievement, joined only by Margaret Court, Chrissie Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and Serena Williams.

But right now Sharapova is far removed from those heady days. Her hope is to reestablish herself as a genuine threat to the leading players, to stay healthy and avoid injuries, to start building momentum by winning matches consistently—and convincing herself that she still has what it takes to play at the highest levels of the game.

"It's tough to say I'm on the right track right now 45 minutes after the match," said Sharapova, who lost 6-3, 6-4. "But, I mean, 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."

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Facing Donna Vekic in the first round of her 16th Australian Open and 58th career major, Sharapova stepped into the arena against a formidable adversary. The 23-year-old, 19th-seeded Croatian made it to her first major quarterfinal at the US Open last year. She has been climbing steadily in the rankings, rising from No. 56 at the end of 2017 to No. 34 in 2018 and on into the Top 20 by the end of 2019. Sharapova surely could have found herself confronted by an even tougher draw, but she knew full well that her challenge in taking on a player of rising stock like Vekic would be considerable.

Sharapova seemed tense at the outset of this clash. She has been hindered by a wide assortment of injuries for too many years, enduring shoulder surgeries that have taken away a significant amount of velocity from her delivery, dealing with other ailments that have made her a less intimidating adversary. Last year her shoulder was a major burden that kept her away from tournaments frequently and disrupted her campaign considerably.

And even her ground game—while still ferocious off both sides—is no longer as potent as it once was. In fact, the last time Sharapova won a match was in Cincinnati last summer when she surprised Alison Riske in the first round. She took only two games from Serena in the first round of the US Open before shutting her 2019 season down. Opening her 2020 campaign in Brisbane, Sharapova lost in a final set tie-break to Jennifer Brady.

"You know, I can speak about my struggles and the things that I've gone through with my shoulder, but it's not really in my character to," Sharapova said. "So, you know, I was there. I put myself out there. You know, as tough as it was, you know, I finished the match and, yeah, it wasn't the way that I wanted."

No wonder Sharapova commenced this battle apprehensively. She was down 5-1 in the first set and was her own worst enemy at that stage, spraying the court with clusters of mistakes. But Sharapova is still a fighter of the front rank, prideful to her core, a professional through and through. She came alive at the end of the first set and made a go of it. Sharapova took two games in a row to close the gap to 5-3 for Vekic.

Serving for the set, Vekic was down break point. Sharapova was at last finding some depth on her shots, asserting herself in the rallies, and even picking up some pace on her serve. But Vekic saved that crucial break point, forcing Sharapova into an error. She closed out the set by taking the last two points. Vekic prevailed 6-3, but Sharapova’s late comeback served her well in the second set.

Sharapova built a commanding 4-1 lead, and reached 30-30 in Vekic’s serve in the sixth game. Vekic was now more and more on her heels as Sharapova raised both the velocity and depth of her returns. But the Croatian held on gamely to prevent Sharapova from virtually sealing the set. Sharapova was ahead 30-0 in the seventh game when she double faulted. Vekic collected three points in a row for the break back to 3-4. She held on for 4-4, and then Sharapova wasted another lead in the ninth game.

The former world No. 1 was up 30-0m but Vekic connected with a forehand return winner down the line and then made it to 30-30. Once more on a big point, Sharapova faltered, releasing another damaging double fault. Then she followed with a backhand unforced error into the bottom of the net.

"There is no reason I shouldn't follow through with being up with that type of advantage in each of those games," Sharapova admitted afterward. "You know, if I'm looking at that part of the match, it's a combination of she definitely stepped up on those points, played well, played big, deep, and a little bit of making the wrong choices."

Vekic now served for the match. She started the tenth game tentatively with a double fault of her own, but fended off Sharapova on the following point and then laced a forehand winner up the line for 30-15. A service winner took Vekic to 40-15. Although Sharapova drove a forehand return winner down the line on the next point, Vekic came through on her second match point by coaxing an error from Sharapova on a low ball that was too much to handle.

Vekic made only 17 unforced errors, 14 fewer than Sharapova. And the two players were just about even in the winners category with Sharapova at 19 and Vekic only one behind.

"I always enjoy playing on the big stages. I really enjoyed my time from the first point. Happy to leave with a win this time," Vekic said in her on-court interview.

Now Sharapova will fall near or even outside the top 350 in the world. To work her way back to safer territory, Sharapova will need to work harder than ever and be the beneficiary of some more wild cards. How long that will continue is up to organizers.

Her performance against Vekic was far from dismal. The way she played at the end of the first set into the middle of the second was reminiscent of days and years gone by. But when crunch time came, Sharapova’s frailty sadly surfaced. Her grunting seemed louder when the stakes were lower, but when it counted Sharapova simply did not believe in herself. Her insecurity was painfully evident.

Will she ever recover the self conviction that once was her trademark? I doubt it. Perhaps the best case scenario for Maria Sharapova is that with sheer persistence and her much vaunted professionalism, she will somehow make it back to the Top 40 in the world. But the feeling grows that this could be a very unhappy season and perhaps the beginning of the end for a great player with a wounded psyche and a physique that has been sorely diminished by the passage of time.

Asked whether she can get herself in the proper form needed to compete in the tournaments she desires, Sharapova left more uncertainty about her future.

"I would like to," she said. "I don't know—you know, I don't have a crystal ball to tell you if I can or if I will, but I would love to."