MELBOURNE, Australia — This was the match Maria Sharapova said she wanted — a quality opponent on a big stage to get a true gauge on exactly where she stood since her return to competitive tennis eight months ago.
In a third-round match against Angelique Kerber that was hyped as being worthy of a final, only one player competed at a championship level. Broken in the first game to start the match, Sharapova never got back on track as Kerber took just 64 minutes on her way to an easy 6-1, 6-3 win.
So, the final judgment after this highly anticipated match between two former Australian Open champions?
Sharapova should be concerned. Very concerned.
It’s another thing to be completely crushed, which was the case with Sharapova.
It was a smackdown and so one-sided that Sharapova left the court quickly after the affair. When she walked into the media room later to explain what happened, her solemn demeanor indicated a spirit that had been severely shaken.
“It’s never easy to be on the losing end of things, be sitting in a press conference talking about a loss,” Sharapova said. “But I’m here because I’m motivated to get better at my craft. I really do believe that I can; otherwise I wouldn’t be here.”
Yes, Sharapova can get better. But is it realistic to believe that she can get back to the championship level that produced five career Grand Slam titles?
Sharapova won here in Australia in 2008, capping a string of three Grand Slam championships in a five-year period. She is one of only 10 women to hold the career Grand Slam.
But she hasn’t won a Grand Slam event since 2014.
For both Kerber and Sharapova, quite a bit has changed since the Australian Open two years ago.
Kerber won that 2016 event, went on to win the 2016 US Open and ended that year as the No. 1 player in the world. That momentum didn’t continue into 2017, when she reached just one final the entire year and never made it past the round of 16 in any major.
But Kerber is in the field of 16 here in Melbourne and is playing as well as anyone in the tournament.
Sharapova tested positive for a banned substance at the 2016 Australian Open, which led to her serving a 15-month suspension. Aside from Sharapova’s win over Halep in the opening round of the 2017 US Open — her first major after returning from her suspension — Sharapova has struggled to maintain any type of consistency against quality opponents. Since Sharapova’s return, in the 10 matches in which she has played against opponents ranked in the top 25, she is 5-5.
We can’t pin the struggles of Sharapova, 30, on age — not in an era when some of her peers have played at a high level deep into their thirties. Kerber is also 30.
“I definitely take great examples of a Federer or a Nadal or a Serena and Venus, that have continued to have the motivation that they do at this age,” Sharapova said. “The commitment and the work they’re able to put in — it’s not just walking through a Grand Slam tunnel and getting on the court.”
You can’t blame Sharapova’s flat performance against Kerber on time away from the sport. That would have served as an excuse after she returned last April in Stuttgart, Germany. (She reached the finals there.)
And you can’t blame her struggles on being banged up, because everyone’s dealing with varying degrees of aches and pains.
Sharapova, who last made a Grand Slam final in 2015 here in Melbourne, admitted that in her time away during the suspension, it was tough to maintain her competitive balance because of the lack of actual matches.
“I know there’s nothing that can replicate playing tournaments and playing matches, no matter what you do, no matter how you train, no matter how you practice,” she said.
But she’s been back for a while now.
Back playing tournaments.
Back playing matches.
And Sharapova is still in search of her championship form.
It sure wasn’t anywhere near Rod Laver Stadium on Saturday against Kerber.
“I think there are a lot of things I need to get better at and to improve on,” Sharapova said. “But looking at the overall picture, the overall beginning of this year, finishing the tournament, first thing is that I’m healthy.
“There’s a lot to build from. I know maybe that isn’t what you want to hear, but personally that’s important for me.”