Retiring Sharapova shone at Australian Open

  • Matt Trollope

Maria Sharapova’s last professional match, somewhat appropriately, came at the Australian Open – the site of some of her greatest career successes.
 
In January, the Russian fell in the first round of AO2020 to 19th seed Donna Vekic at Rod Laver Arena. Just over a month later, having not played since that defeat, she announced in a self-penned article, published in both Vanity Fair and Vogue, that she was retiring from the sport.
 
Prior to 2020, Rod Laver Arena had been a venue at which Sharapova thrived.
 
In 2008, she mowed down a succession of top players on that very court en route to the title, in what was arguably the finest performance of her career. 
 
After sweeping past world No.1 Justine Henin 6-4 6-0 in the quarterfinals, she beat Serbs Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic – both ranked in the top four – in the semis and final respectively to lift the trophy. 

She completed the tournament without dropping a set.

“The Australian Open took me to a place that had never been a part of me before—to an extreme confidence that some people call being ‘in the zone’,” she wrote in her retirement piece. “I really can’t explain it—but it was a good place to be.”
 
So dominant was Sharapova in that stretch that she went on to win her first 18 matches of 2008 and 24 of her first 25, before a shoulder injury began to take hold. That same issue also contributed to her decision to walk away from the game at age 32. 
 
“My body had become a distraction,” she revealed.
 
In addition to her Australian Open triumph in 2008, Sharapova reached a further three finals at Melbourne Park. 
 
An overwhelming 6-1 6-2 loss to Serena Williams in the 2007 decider perhaps made her ability to rebound and capture the 2008 title all the more impressive.

“The Australian Open took me to a place that had never been a part of me before—to an extreme confidence that some people call being ‘in the zone’."
Maria Sharapova

She also advanced to the 2012 and 2015 finals, the latter also resulting in defeat to Williams – although the 6-3 7-6(5) scoreline was a far more competitive affair, featuring the world’s top two players clashing in one of the more intense battles of their series.
 
At no other Grand Slam tournament has Sharapova notched more finals; her three straight at Roland Garros from 2012 to 2014 is her next best tally.
 
She also won 57 main-draw singles matches at Melbourne Park, again her highest total among the four majors.
 
While the seven matches she won in straight sets at Australian Open 2008 were perhaps her most flawless, she was equally dominant five years later. She won her first two matches 6-0 6-0 and went up 4-0 on Venus Williams in the third round, thus winning 28 straight games to open her Australian Open 2013 campaign, which ended with a semifinal defeat to Li Na.

Maria Sharapova celebrates her 6-1 6-3 victory over Venus Williams in the third round of Australian Open 2013. (Getty Images)

Her involvement in several compelling three-set classics here will also be long remembered. 
 
In 2005 she held match points against Serena Williams and pushed her to 8-6 in the final set before the American prevailed in a thriller – a result that began to turn the head-to-head in the American’s favour.
 
A year later, Sharapova and Henin battled in a sensational semifinal under the Rod Laver Arena roof which the Belgian won 4-6 6-1 6-4.
 
At the same stage of the 2012 tournament it was Sharapova who come out on top, beating second-ranked Petra Kvitova 6-4 in the third set to avenge her loss to the Czech in the previous year’s Wimbledon final.

Even as recently as 2019 Sharapova was still battling, ending Caroline Wozniacki’s title defence in the third round in three sets before very nearly staging a stunning comeback against Australian favourite Ash Barty in the last 16.
 
Barty survived – but only after seeing her 4-0 third-set lead evaporate as the five-time Grand Slam champion came at her hard down the home straight. 
 
“Maria was never going to go away. Proven champion,” a relieved Barty reflected after the 4-6 6-1 6-4 win. “Time and time again it proves she will fight until the last point.”
 
Sharapova finished her career with a 60-15 win-loss record at Melbourne Park – a success rate of 80 per cent – when also factoring in her three qualifying-round victories back in 2003 which saw her make her Slam debut.

From being both the first Grand Slam tournament she played, and the last, Australian Open fans saw the best of Sharapova.