Maria, Venus face up to reality

  • Dan Imhoff

It takes just one question into Maria Sharapova’s post-match press conference at Melbourne Park before inevitable talk of retirement is posed.

It comes only 45 minutes after her first-round defeat to 19th seed Donna Vekic on Rod Laver Arena on Tuesday. 

While the loss no longer comes as a huge surprise by any stretch, it is a guaranteed precursor to an interrogation into the 32-year-old’s plans for the future.

It is 16 years since a then 17-year-old blonde baby-faced Russian stunned Serena Williams to win Wimbledon, but six years since the last of her five majors in Paris.

At 32, Sharapova is far from the oldest player on tour, but her stop-start season in 2019 raises a red flag.

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It's been 12 months since Sharapova won consecutive tour matches

She contested only seven events due to an ailing shoulder, and the only time she won back-to-back matches was at last year’s Australian Open before Ashleigh Barty brought her run to an end.

This was Sharapova’s third straight opening-round defeat in a Grand Slam, her first at Melbourne Park since 2010.

MORE: Vekic sends Sharapova packing

This one, though, felt different. Where she had normally refused to concede the end was nigh, this was the most resigned to the fact she had appeared.

“I don't know. I don't know. I was fortunate to get myself to be here and thankfully to Craig [Tiley] and the team allowing me to be part of this event,” Sharapova said.

“It's tough for me to tell what's going to happen in 12 months’ time …  I just don't know. I haven't thought of my schedule moving forward from here yet.”

Veteran Italian coach Riccardo Piatti – formerly in charge of the likes of Novak Djokovic, Ivan Ljubicic, Milos Raonic and Richard Gasquet – was brought into the fold, and Sharapova indicated this would not be the end of the road for the partnership.

But with her ranking set to plummet to about No.366 in the world after her defeat on Tuesday, she was open to the possibility she may struggle to keep her body in shape for long enough to compete near the top consistently.

“I would like to … I don't have a crystal ball to tell you if I can or if I will, but I would love to,” she said. “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.”

Similar lines of questioning have increasingly been raised with 39-year-old Venus Williams, with even greater subtlety and segues required.

The American – typically opaque when addressing media – managed to avoid talk of retirement until the seventh question after her defeat to teen sensation Coco Gauff on Monday.

It was the second time in three majors Williams had come up short in the opening round against the player 24 years her junior.

At Wimbledon, it came to most as a sizeable shock. To many at Melbourne Park, it was expected.

MORE: Déjà vu as Coco vanquishes Venus again

Williams had withdrawn from Brisbane and Adelaide leading in due to an ongoing hip injury and despite reaching four quarterfinals last year, she arrived as the world No.55, having failed to win a match since September.

The last of her seven majors came at Wimbledon in 2008, and she will turn 40 in June, with the Tokyo Olympics only a month later.

Another crack at gold alongside sister Serena in the women’s doubles is surely on the cards, but the depth in American ranks – players younger, fitter and higher-ranked – could put paid to those plans.

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Williams suffered her second first-round AO exit in three years

“There's a lot going on before then, definitely not at the forefront,” Williams said.

“But if I'm blessed enough to play again, that would be an amazing opportunity … [I’ve] had a lot of success in [Olympic] doubles. That's been a real highlight in my career.”

The chance to win a third Olympic gold medal in doubles with Serena – to add to her Sydney 2000 singles gold and Rio de Janeiro 2016 mixed doubles silver – could be the incentive to persevere into her 40th year.

“I mean, in the perfect world, we'll be there.”