Sharapova casts doubt over Australian Open return

andrew hendrie:

Maria Sharapova is unsure of whether she’ll be back at the Australian Open next year after suffering a straight sets first round loss to 19th seed Donna Vekic on Tuesday.

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Sharapova struggled on serve and from the back of the court as she slumped to a 3-6 4-6 defeat to Vekic on Rod Laver Arena, casting doubt over her future in the game.

The beneficiary of a wildcard into the Australian Open, Sharapova is projected to fall over 200 places when the new WTA rankings are released after the tournament, which would see her drop outside of the world’s top 350.

Sidelined for the majority of last season with shoulder surgery, Sharapova – the 2008 Australian Open champion – faces a steep climb if she is to claw her way back to the top of the game.

The five-time major champion has never truly been the same since returning from a 15-month doping ban, and after her loss to Vekic in Melbourne, Sharapova admits she doesn’t know how if she’ll still be playing beyond 2020.

“I don’t know,” she told reporters when asked if she would be back at Melbourne Park next year. “I was fortunate to get myself to be here and thankful to Craig [tournament director Tiley] and the team allowing me to be part of this event.

“It’s tough for me to tell what’s going to happen in 12 months’ time.”

Sharapova showcased her trademark fight, almost recovering from two breaks down in the first set and moving out to a 4-1 lead in the second, but her inconsistency and struggles on serve made it difficult for her to maintain momentum.

Vekic, who made her first Grand Slam quarter-final at the U.S. Open last year, was thrilled to claim the victory as she looks to make the Australian Open second week for the first time.

“I always enjoy playing the big stages, and this one is pretty big,” she said. “I enjoyed my time on this court from the first point, and I’m happy to leave with a win this time.”

Elsewhere, second seed Karolina Pliskova secured her spot in the second round after toppling former top 10 player Kristina Mladenovic 6-1 7-5.

There were also straight sets opening round wins for sixth seed Belinda Bencic over Anna Karolina Schmiedlova and former semi-finalist Madison Keys against Daria Kasatkina.