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Maria Sharapova Loses To Donna Vekic • Bounces Out Of The 2020 Australian Open

By Aix Ramsay

Maria Sharapova is good at keeping her cards close to her chest; she is an expert in giving nothing away. Win or lose, play well or play poorly, she takes her defeats on the chin and she accepts her victories with style and class (always pleased and enthusiastic, never gloating or over the top). In short, she is the ultimate pro.

But somehow it was different on Tuesday. Oh, yes, she came to her press conference promptly and talked about her 6-3, 6-4 defeat at the hands of Donna Vekic (she had been a break up in that second set, too). No change there, then. But it was the tone in her voice, the look on her face – she was down, really down, this time. And she has spent a lifetime showing no hint of weakness, especially emotional weakness, to her rivals.

The former world No.1 and the winner of five grand slam titles had won just three matches in the past 12 months as she came into the Australian Open. Her right shoulder, that ailing joint that has been rebuilt, remodelled and rebooted more times than she cares to remember, had restricted her schedule to just seven events and after reaching the fourth round in Melbourne last January (she was eventually stopped by Ash Barty), she barely won a match for the rest of the year.

The loss to Vekic, then, simply piled misery upon misery. Not that Shazza does self-pity. She was not going to let on how much pain she was in or how bad her shoulder was. She was just glum that for all the hard work and all the effort, she wasn’t getting any better. Now, having failed to defend her ranking points from last year, her position in the world order had slumped to around the 366 mark. No wonder she was down.

“Last year I think I played seven or eight tournaments,” she said. “So I don’t know if I can look at the ranking and really think about it in depth, just because I really haven’t played, and I was injured most of the year. You know, I certainly have to take that into account.

“As far as the work that I did, yeah, I did all the right things. I put in all the right work. There is no guarantee that even when you do all of those things that you’re guaranteed victory in a first round or in the third round or in the final. That’s the name of this game. That’s why it’s so special to be a champion, even for one time.

“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.

“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.”

As for the future, she did not wish to discuss it. She was not being evasive; she genuinely had no idea what was on the cards for her in the coming months. No one could ever fault Sharapova’s work ethic but not even she knows if all the work she has done and is continuing to do will be of any good. Her ambition is just to be able to play tournaments as and when she wants – and she is not sure if her body will let her do that anymore.

“I would like to,” she said quietly. “I don’t have a crystal ball to tell you if I can or if I will, but I would love to, yeah. Even just a few weeks ago we just didn’t really have a schedule in mind, yeah.”

It all sounded as if this would be the last time Melbourne Park would see Sharapova as an active player. Even with her doggedly determined nature and utter refusal to admit defeat, she cannot go on taking pasting after pasting knowing that there is nothing she can do to stop the humiliation. Her shoulder is just not up to it anymore and there is nothing left to try and mend in the mess of a joint that remains.

If she is on the home straight of her career, tennis is going to miss Sharapova. She has her detractors – many of them – who see her as cold, hard and aloof. She has made no secret of the fact that she does not seek out friends in the locker room but that hides the fact that she is actually a perfectly normal young woman. Yes, she is monumentally wealthy and monumentally famous, but she has manners, she has brains and she knows how to behave.

Every journo in the press room has a tale of interviewing a star player at length only for that same player to blank them in the corridor minutes later. Not Sharapova – if she recognises you, she will say hello. It is only polite.

And she understands the press game: she gives good quote. She has opinions and will state them, she will not suffer fools gladly – and usually raises a laugh in the press conference as she makes this clear – she knows how to crack a joke and she knows what makes a story. It is hardly a surprise, then, that the default setting for most sports editors over the years has been to lead the page with a Sharapova story and worry about the rest later.

But just as she is a pro on the court, so she is a pro off it, too. When Sharapova commits to do something, it gets done, no matter what. There are many superstars of both the women’s and the men’s games who wouldn’t know a promise if it came up and bit them in the backside; not Shazza.

In Wuhan a few years back, she had lost her opening match and wanted to be on her way home soonest. Yet she had promised the tournament that she would have her photograph taken with the ballkids before she left town.

No worries: the volunteers and ballkids were told to be on parade at 8.30am the following morning and Shazza would do the shoot on her way to the airport. But the kids wanted their photo taken with Shazza the superstar, not Shazza in scuzzy trackies and in a foul mood as she went home. Again, no worries. At 8.25am, the car pulled up and out stepped Queen Shaz in posh frock, six-inch heels, full make-up and hair and wreathed in smiles for every ballkid. At 8.30am the photos and the glad-handing began and by 8.40am Shaz was on her way to the airport. Everyone went home happy. Because that is the way Sharapova works.

Of course, all of this adds to her celebrity profile which, in turn, adds to her bank balance. But it is also a part of who Sharapova is. She does what she has promised because it matters to the people who have been promised. And people matter.

When Brad Drewett died in 2013, Stacey Allaster was the Chair and CEO of the WTA.  She sent a message to all the WTA players and within the hour, Sharapova had replied, sending condolences to Drewett’s family and asking if there was anything more she should do. She was the only player to respond.

“Maria is a model for tennis players,” Allaster said later, “for athletes and for women in general, thanks to her work, enormous tenacity and great trust. Maria is so intelligent, so determined to win and achieve excellence.

“She is a person who has a high regard for others. And although many don’t know, she is a girl who also has a great sense of humour.”

And tennis is going to miss her dearly when she goes.

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