- Russian goes out to Donna Vekic in opening round
- Sharapova world ranking projected to drop to No 366
It says much about a player’s decline when their early departure from a big tournament goes largely unnoticed in the wider context but remains a centrepiece of the media circus. So it was for Maria Sharapova, whose lingering celebrity still commands a place on the main stage, but yet again was not matched by her performance here.
Invited into the draw with a wildcard, the 32-year-old Russian thanked the tournament director, Craig Tiley, for his generosity, after flitting past us in an hour and 21 minutes on Rod Laver Arena, helpless to stop 19th seed Donna Vekic winning 6-3, 6-4.
Sharapova who played her 800th tour match in 2019 but whose ranking will dive to 366 after this loss, would not be drawn on whether or not this was her last visit to Melbourne. “It’s tough to know where I’ll be in 12 months time,” she said. “Last year I played only seven or eight tournaments. I was injured most of the year. I would love to [play at the highest level again].”
Chris Evert chipped in on ESPN: “I don’t think she can get back to the top of the game. 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 of age. And she wants to have a life too. She is a very well-rounded person. She went to classes at Harvard business school. She is business-minded. There are other things she wants to do.”
But none gives her the platform that tennis does – which might explain why she is exercising her right to play for as long as she can.
There was an obvious and stark contrast between Sharapova’s ongoing lull and the revival of Serena Williams, whose path to at least the semi-finals looks gilded. She plays the Slovakian Tamara Zidansek in the first evening match on Wednesday. It should not last long.
Sharapova’s slide has been long and inevitable, and she has shown extraordinary grit in a long career blighted by injury – not to mention her difficulties over meldonium. She might not be the most popular player on the women’s Tour – by a distance – but there are plenty of people who respect her fighting qualities.
“I was fortunate to get myself to be here,” she said, “and thanks to Craig and the team allowing me to be part of this event.”
If a return to the Australian Open is no certainty, it seems she does not know where she will be next week, either. “I haven’t thought of my schedule moving forward from here yet,” she said.
Asked to elaborate on her battles to be fit, she said, “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.”
Elsewhere in the women’s draw on day two, there were wins, expected and otherwise, for Wimbledon and French champion, Simona Halep, seeded fourth, Karolina Plishova (2), Belinda Bencic (6), Kiki Bertens (9), Madison Keys (10), Maria Sakkari (22) and the excellent young Ukrainian, Dayana Yastremska (23), perhaps the most interesting of them all.