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Sport The greatest shame of Sharapova's downfall

04:10  23 january  2020
04:10  23 january  2020 Source:   wwos.nine.com.au

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For a third consecutive grand slam, Maria Sharapova has fallen to a first-round defeat at the Australian Open. Now questions are being asked about her future.

For a third consecutive grand slam, Maria Sharapova has fallen to a first-round defeat at the Australian Open. Now questions are being asked about her future.

a person holding a sign posing for the camera: Croatian 19th seed Donna Vekic advanced to the second round of the Australian Open after defeating 2008 champion Maria Sharapova 6-3 6-4. © Provided by Wide World of Sports Croatian 19th seed Donna Vekic advanced to the second round of the Australian Open after defeating 2008 champion Maria Sharapova 6-3 6-4. Last year an awkward atmosphere fell over Maria Sharapova's press conference after she was bundled out of the Australian Open by Ash Barty.

Almost two years on from her return to tennis following a 15-month doping ban, the Russian star was fighting battles on several fronts.

Not only had she struggled to make, by her lofty standards, a deep run at a grand slam in six attempts - her best effort was a quarter final appearance at the 2018 French Open - she was also battling a dodgy shoulder and an unwelcoming locker room, with few friends among her peers.

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The drug led to Sharapova ' s downfall and, ultimately, to Wednesday's 33-page judgement which so tarnishes her reputation. The panel accepted Sharapova did not believe meldonium was a prohibited substance when she took it earlier this year and, therefore, determined her use of the drug was not

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At 31, Sharapova was running out of chances to add to her tally of five grand slams, the press room was the last place she wanted to be. And then she was hit with this: "Maria you took Meldonium for 10 years to deal with your health problems. I wonder just now that it's banned and you can no longer take it, is it a struggle physically to cope with the demands of a grand slam fortnight?"

Sharapova refused to answer that question then but 12 months on it doesn't feel any less relevant.

Prior to Sharapova's loss to Barty in last year's Open, Nine commentator Sam Smith observed that she'd "never known someone to get so many injuries" and there's been no respite in the last 12 months.

After leaving Australia, Sharapova managed just nine further matches last year, losing six of them. Her shoulder has become an almost permanent problem and it may yet end her career.

Certainly, in her round one loss to Donna Vekic this week she looked a shadow of the champion who once intimidated and bullied her way through the early rounds at a grand slam.

That defeat will see her ranking plummet out of the top 350; surely a jolting reality check for one of the greatest players of her generation, even if it hasn't yet completely sunk in that the end is nigh.

"It's tough for me to tell what's going to happen in 12 months' time," Sharapova said after the match, adding that she her mind was still willing to extend her career even if it's becoming ever more obvious that her body's not.

"I don't have a crystal ball to tell you if I can or if I will (play the number of tournaments I'd like), but I would love to, yeah.

"It's tough to say I'm on the right track right now 45 minutes after the match. But there is no way to get out of it except to keep believing in yourself, because if you do all the right things and you don't believe in yourself, then that's probably a bad formula."

a woman wearing a hat: Maria Sharapova walks off the court at the Australian Open, perhaps for the last time. © Getty Maria Sharapova walks off the court at the Australian Open, perhaps for the last time.

Sharapova has never lacked for competitiveness and self belief and even after reaching rock-bottom, respected commentator Smith still sees those qualities within her.

"Still a great competitor, thinks like a champion, mentally still one of the strongest, who knows?" Smith said when asked by Wide World of Sports if we'd seen the last of Sharapova as a contender for slams.

"But I think if she's still in this situation in 12 months time, then you start to question."

At that point, if not before then, the time will come to start talking about Sharapova's legacy. It will be a hard topic to cover without giving some thought to her doping ban.

We may never know if Sharapova's legal use of Meldonium for a decade during her best years played a significant role in keeping her healthy but since she's been off it she's scarcely been fully fit.

Of course, 15 months off court would take its toll on any player's physical conditioning and it can't be forgotten that by the time she returned she was almost 30.

It may be nothing more than a coincidence that Sharapova put together such an outstanding career while using Meldonium and failed to hit any great heights in her second incarnation without it.

The greatest shame of it all is that only Sharapova and the tight circle around her would truly know, yet the tennis world is within its right to wonder.

Smith acknowledges the doping ban as part of Sharapova's story but says there's a simpler way of looking at its impact on the last few years of her career.

"She had 18 months out, she had the stress of it, she had the stress of the comeback and the coverage and she's been constantly injured," Smith says, before carefully weighing what her lasting memories of the Russian great's career will be.

"Great competitor, always presented herself immaculately on court, just extraordinary mentally, one of the best ever.

"And someone who has a great story in terms of she and her father arrived in Florida with $200 from Russia and she went on to win Wimbledon at 17. It wasn't until (Bianca) Andreescu last year that a teenager has won a slam (since Sharapova's first Wimbledon crown).

a person posing for the camera: Maria Sharapova holding her first slam trophy at Wimbledon in 2004. © Getty Maria Sharapova holding her first slam trophy at Wimbledon in 2004.

"Sharapova's not from a tennis family, so that is an extraordinary achievement.

"And then to win five slams and two of them on clay, which she was terrible on at the start of her career, she's probably achieved everything you could ask of a player and she's just trying to see what great moments are left."

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