The last time we saw Maria Sharapova at a tennis tournament was … all the way back in August.
The longtime star, who has been struggling with injuries – mostly her serving shoulder – for much of the period since she returned from her doping suspension – had the misfortune to draw Serena Williams in the first round of the US Open.
It didn’t go well.
And she hasn’t been seen in an official match since then, despite making every effort to play last fall.
She took a wild card into Brisbane this week, and will try to get back into gear.
Here’s how Sharapova looked Sunday night during a low-profile hit at the Queensland Tennis Centre.
First official tournament in five months
Sharapova did play an exhibition match against Ajla Tomljanovic at the Abu Dhabi men’s event a few weeks ago. But she withdrew from another exhibition event in Hawaii before taking the wild card into Brisbane this week.
She arrived on site already kitted out in … what is that? A skort? A half-skirt, half-culotte concoction? (We’re skeptical).
No need to stop in the locker room to change; Sharapova headed right out to one of the covered outdoor courts here that will serve as the main show courts for the Premier WTA tournament’s big stars until the ATP Cup men move on.
She worked on her serve, and some returns, before perhaps 20 people.
It’s about as low-profile as you can get for Sharapova, still only 32 but currently ranked No. 133.
A year ago, she was the No. 5 seed at the Shenzhen event, ranked No. 29. Seeded No. 30 at the Australian Open, she reached the fourth round and lost to Ashleigh Barty. She played just six more tournaments the rest of the season.
Not that the ranking points are too material these days for Sharapova, who can’t stay healthy enough, for long enough, to string tournaments together. But she’s defending 300 of her 466 total points during the Aussie summer.
Without them, she’s outside the top 300.
Her first-round opponent in Brisbane will be a qualifier. And if she can win it, she would face world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty.
There may be some animus between the two, although Williams has had the final word where it counts, on the tennis court. There is exponentially more animus between the fan bases of both players, which is unpleasant.
And in the end, rather pointless. Because given where both are in terms of their careers at this point, meetings between the two biggest marquee attractions in the women’s game – still – are rare.
That 2018 French Open might have been Sharapova’s best recent chance to put a dent in the lopsided head-to-head. She had been playing very well; this was before her shoulder woes kicked in again.
And it was Serena who was fighting a more uphill battle. Last year’s Roland Garros was only her third tournament back after 16 months away as she gave birth to daughter Olympia (with all that came in the aftermath of that). And then, the pec issue.
This time? Who really knows what Monday night will bring.
Back spasms force Williams out of Toronto
In Toronto just a little over two weeks ago, Williams was hit with a case of back spasms. She said it’s something she has dealt with periodically during her career.
The American took the court clearly diminished against home-town girl Bianca Andreescu. And at 1-3 in the first set, she called it a day. Those touching moments with Andreescu on the court went all around the world.
(As it happens, the two were practicing side by side a few days ago at the US Open).
Typically, Williams said, they dissipated in 24-48 hours. But she wasn’t able to make the date a few days later in Cincinnati. She stuck around scenic Mason, Ohio for awhile, though, cheering on sister Venus as she made a run and enjoying some time with some members of her family.
Sharapova struggling with back-to-back
For Sharapova – only 32 but 15 years (!!) down the road from that first Wimbledon title won as a teenaged ingenue, the problem has been the shoulder.
For the better part of the last decade, it has always been the shoulder.
When she has played, she has played pretty well. But she plays one match – and then can’t answer the bell for the next one.
Since returning from her 15-month doping suspension, Sharapova hasn’t managed to get back into the top 20. She got very close; a year ago at this time, she hit No. 21.
But she has played just seven tournaments this season. There was nearly a five-month gap between the walkover she gave Daria Kasatkina in the second round of St. Petersburg after the Australian Open, and her return on grass in Mallorca in mid-June.
She played one match there, then lost to Angelique Kerber in the second.
Sharapova had tried to get back for the French Open, but couldn’t make it.
At Wimbledon, she was a second-set tiebreak win away from advancing against Pauline Parmentier in the first round. But then she retired down 0-5 in the third set (Yeah, we know).
In Toronto, she lost her opener to Anett Kontaveit in three sets. In Cincinnati, she defeated Alison Riske in the first round, then fell to Ashleigh Barty.
How her form is, and what she’s capable of on the biggest stage in tennis, is the question mark.
Serena at No. 8
Williams has made three Grand Slam finals since her return, including this year at Wimbledon.
So overall, her form at the majors has been very good – a big reason why she’s ranked No. 8 in the world right now. But in rank-and-file WTA events, she’s not performed.
Williams, too, has played just seven events in 2019. But they’ve all been big ones – three majors, two Premier Mandatories, and two Premier 5s.
After beating Victoria Azarenka in her Indian Wells opener – a cracking early-round match that had many of the elements this one does – she retired against Garbiñe Muguruza. In Miami, she won her opener and then gave Qiang Wang a walkover.
In Rome, she won her first-round match – and then gave sister Venus a walkover.
But her road to the Rogers Cup final included her first win over defending US Open champion Naomi Osaka, And if she didn’t play her best tennis in Toronto, she scrapped hard, and reached the final before having to retire.
You know she’s up for this
Coincidentally – or not??? – Williams hit with Grigor Dimitrov on Friday, after the draw was out and the first-round matchups were known.
It’s not the first time she has practiced with Dimitrov, especially before a Grand Slam. But there’s a special piquant to this one, as fans of both well know and we need not reiterate here.
Maybe the last time
The anticipation for their meeting in Paris ended in disappointment. All you can hope is that this one offers Slam-final like atmosphere and intensity (you know it will from the players) and that the tennis is both competitive and high quality.
There aren’t many “marquee”-type names that well justify a slot in an Ashe Stadium night session, from the women’s side.
There are plenty who deserve it on accomplishment. But that’s not what we’re talking about here, in this venue, in this city, and for the predominantly casual tennis fans who attend these night sessions for the atmosphere and the show.
That two of them will meet in the first round – and thus, one will be eliminated – is a cruel joke by the draw gods.
If it is the last time they find themselves on the same court, let’s hope they at least go out with a bang.
At an age where she should still be a relevant contender at major tournaments, the former No. 1 finds herself at a career crossroads.
She seems to still want to play, even if she has little to prove and has plenty of off-court ventures to keep her busy.
But her body won’t let her.
When Sharapova has played in 2019, she has played well. But then the shoulder pain has kicked in again. And that’s all she wrote.
Sharapova’s shoulder has been her Achilles’ heel for much of her career.
Back in 2008, she finally had surgery and missed the Beijing Olympics, the US Open and the rest of the season. But for a significant period before that, she already had been fighting through bad diagnoses and surgery-avoiding therapy before she finally bit the bullet.
You could argue that Sharapova never really got her serve back. And without that serve, she had to work a whole lot harder to win points. Which, eventually, takes its toll on other body parts.
Here’s a selection of Sharapics from the Tennis.Life archive.
More time off than on for Sharapova
Sharapova didn’t play after the US Open last year.
And she has played just three tournaments in 2019.
In two of them, Shenzhen (retired vs. Sabalenka) and St. Petersburg (gave Kasatkina a walkover), she didn’t finish. In the third, the Australian Open, she upset defending champion Caroline Wozniacki before losing to Ashleigh Barty 6-4 in the third, in the fourth round.
Since then, she reportedly has tried a new treatment on the shoulder that, she hopes, will put her back on the court.
But more than two months later, after missing Indian Wells and Miami, she’s still out. Sharapova will miss Stuttgart, which is a tournament sponsored by the carmaker for which she’s an ambassador and which she won three straight years from 2012-14. And she has also already withdrawn from Madrid, at which she has been a champion and a finalist.
Rome is next up. And she’s won that three times. But nothing is certain at the moment.
While her ranking is holding steady at 28, she has some big points to defend in the next two months. Sharapova reached the quarterfinal in Madrid, the semis in Rome and the quarters at the French Open.
They represent nearly 60 per cent of her ranking points. Without those three results, her ranking would drop down close to No. 90.
15-month doping suspension hurt
There’s not much point spending more bandwidth to rehash Sharapova’s positive doping test for Meldonium in March, 2016. They wanted four years, certainly to make an example of her as the biggest fish ever caught in the doping net. She ended up being out of the game 15 months. Not only did it cost her millions and threaten her longstanding relationships with some sponsors, it also cost her all those months on the Tour as she was hitting 30.
She’s not been the same since she returned, determined as she is.
Back in 2011, Sharapova got engaged to NBA player Sasha Vujacic. But that one never made it to the altar. It was one of only two romantic relationships she had that she didn’t manage to keep private.
The other, of course, was with fellow player Grigor Dimitrov.
She’s currently dating a British fellow named Alexander Gilkes, a 39-year-old online auction house owner.
Obziler made it into the top 100 (No. 75) on the WTA Tour for the first time in 2007, at quite an advanced age for a tennis player.
She wasn’t a big name. But she was known for being one of the mothers on tour. In her case, though, it was a bit of a twist, as it was her partner, Hadas, who actually had baby Lihi.
She did take a maternity leave from the Tour, though, and returned in 2008 to finish up.
Aussie Casey Dellacqua, who had two children with partner Amanda Judd and just gave birth to their third child herself, followed in her footsteps.
The former player now known for her on-court interviews at Wimbledon has made a great career for herself after her playing days – and it’s a tribute to her that she’s still going strong on in a business that’s particular cruel to women her age.
Barker was a semi-finalist at Wimbledon in 1977 (the centenary year, with another Brit, Virginia Wade, winning it all).
Just 21 at the time, she was seeded No. 4, Wade No. 3 – two British women in the top four seeds; hard to believe.
Here’s some video of Barker playing rival Chris Evert (then Lloyd) in the 1981 Fed Cup final.
And here they are, years later, chatting on the BBC’s Wimbledon broadcast. Two fine old birds, still.
Barker won the French Open in 1976 (the fields were week in those mid-70s years, but it was still a major accomplishment).
She retired in 1984. Her backhand was a bit erratic, she absolutely smoked her forehand. We can relate.
It has already felt, this season, as though retirement isn’t all that far away for the Russian. She’s still only 31. But the shoulder, which has never fully recovered from surgery she had more than a decade ago, continues to trouble her.
Sharapova hadn’t entered the tournaments in Doha and Dubai this week and next (she has won Doha twice).
So far, her tennis has been limited this season. But when she has played, she has often played well.
Sharapova won two rounds in the season opener in Shenzhen before retiring, down 1-6, 2-4, to Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus.
And she won three rounds in Australia, including a three-set victory over defending champion Caroline Wozniacki, before falling in three sets to Ashleigh Barty in the round of 16.
In St. Petersburg, she beat Daria Gavrilova, but withdrew from the tournament before she was to play No. 3 seed Daria Kasatkina in the second round.
Health a struggle for Sharapova
Since her return to play in Stuttgart after serving a 15-month suspension for her positive meldonium test, Sharapova has rarely been able to maintain good health or consistent form. That’s a lengthy break for someone turning 30, who already had the wear and wear inherent in having been on Tour for more than 15 years.
She remains entered in the Miami Open. And a big indicator of what her future may hold will be if she plays Stuttgart, which was where she made that return. That event takes place at the end of April.
Sharapova is a brand ambassador for Porsche, the title sponsor. And she’s a three-time champion.
From one unsourced story in a British tabloid, come dozens of cut-and-paste clones.
And so, as rumor becomes “fact” in an Internet instant, Maria Sharapova agent Max Eisenbud set the record straight Sunday on the Russian star’s future with longtime clothing sponsor Nike.
The story in question, in The Sun, claims Sharapova has “told friends that she believes the sportswear giant will not renew her deal when it expires at the end of this year”. And that sources indicate she “is hoping that Adidas will take her on.”
Eisenbud told tennis.life those assertions are fiction.
“It’s just incredible how a publication can make up lies and not be held accountable. Even worse is how other publications run with the story as if it is fact. It’s a huge issue,” Eisenbud said.
“For the record, Maria has a lifetime deal with Nike. Her fans will get to see some of her best dresses in 2019 and more La Cortez.”
It wasn’t that long ago that the Coupe Banque Nationale in Quebec City was a gem of a tournament.
The small provincial capital has a long tradition of treating every event held there – regardless of size – as a big-league endeavour.
It offered everything a player could want. And that included impressive crowds, especially in the context of an International-level event.
And many players stopped in on their way to the top. Past champions include Jennifer Capriati (in 1999) and 16-year-old Maria Sharapova (in 2003).
But those days are gone. The crowds have dwindled every year over the last five years.
And while Tennis Canada vice-president Eugène Lapierre said the tournament would be back in 2019, he can’t guarantee its future beyond that.
In fact, Lapierre confirmed that Tennis Canada, which bought back the event in the third change of ownership over the last four years, regularly receives offers to buy the event’s license and relocate it.
The offers have come from Asia and from the Middle East.
And, new this year, from Lyon, France and … Detroit, Michigan.
“I can’t deny that we’ve had international requests for our product. It’s worth money. We’ll look at that, but the most important thing remains the development of our sport,” Lapierre told the media in Quebec City last week.
There are been a few pit stops from top-name players over the years, including Venus Williams, who went … curling in 2014. And that tends to raise expectations.
“I was in the lobby of the hotel and a man asked me, “Oh, we won’t have Serena this year? And right there, I told myself, ‘Oh boy, if that’s what the people in Quebec expect, we’ll never make it,” Lapierre said.
From November to September
The tournament has already changed its dates, to try to attract better fields.
Previously, it was held the first week of November (back when the WTA Tour season was longer). The slot was attractive in terms of potentially attracting last-minute top-20 players looking for a few extra points to try to qualifying for the year-end finals. But on the down side, it took place long after the players left North America after the US Open.
The competing tournaments in that slot were in Europe. And since the Tour finals were held in Europe from the time the event left New York’s Madison Square Garden in 2000 until the move to Singapore in 2014, Quebec was at a disadvantage.
So they tried something else. The event was moved to the week after the US Open, in the hopes of attracting players before they went on to Europe or the fall Asian swing.
Sporadic appearances by Bouchard
That didn’t work, either.
The fall Asian swing begins the same week, with a competing International-level event in Hiroshima, Japan.
In addition, the rare presence of potentially its biggest drawing card, home favorite Genie Bouchard, hasn’t helped matters.
After reaching the semifinals in 2013, the Montrealer has returned only once – in 2016, for an appearance fee that stretched the tournament’s budget and ended up not paying dividends.
This year, Bouchard opted for Hiroshima, where she lost to Nao Hibino in the first round.
A summer outdoor event?
The tournament has looked into the possibility of holding it outdoors, during the North American summer swing. If Lapierre had his druthers, it would be in February in the leadup to Indian Wells and Miami although the venue, at Laval University, is more booked up during that period of the year.
Times change. And sometimes a tournament has its day. There are plenty of women’s events in North America that have not survived over the last few decades, including San Diego, Los Angeles and Memphis.
But it would be a shame if the Coupe Banque Nationale became another casualty, and ended up in the Far East.
The three previous matches between the two – one on hard, one on grass, and one on clay – have all gone the distance. They have played nine sets; there have been tiebreaks in eight of them. And Federer has won the last two.
“I definitely know that I won’t be the favorite, the crowd favorite here. So I go into that match with zero expectation. I do believe I can beat him. I have done it before. It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Kyrgios said after pulling out his second-round win over Pierre-Hugues Herbert.
Kyrgios often refers to Federer at the GOAT (Greatest of All Time). So we know where he stands in that mock debate.
Asked what three weapons Federer has that are the most dangerous, he answered thus:
“I think his slice return, his chip return, is the best the game has ever seen. There has never been a better chip return ever. I think if you took that shot away, he wouldn’t be as good because he neutralizes big serves as well. He turns it into pretty much instant offense,” Kyrgios said.
“His serve and first shot unbelievable, very unpredictable. And he’s unbelievably efficient. Never gets tired, doesn’t seem like it. His movements are so efficient. He’s just, yeah, those would be the three things. He’s efficient, serve and first ball, and chip return.”
Another mercurial opponent for the Fed
As for Federer, he’ll be playing a talented but highly unpredictable opponent for the second straight match, after defeating France’s Benoit Paire in straight sets in the second round.
He didn’t drop a set against lefty Yoshihito Nishioka in the first round, either. But you’d have to consider this a pretty good draw through the first few days for him.
Federer hasn’t won the US Open in 10 years, which is right around the time people were starting to “retire” him.
No. 6 seed Novak Djokovic is hardly under radar. But he has hardly had a bump-free road to his third round match against No. 26 seed Richard Gasquet Saturday night.
Djokovic dropped a set to both Marton Fucsovics of Hungary in the first round, and Tennys Sandgren in the second round. He has had his share of tetchy moments with crowd control and his own play – even in practice.
At one point during his hit with Stan Wawrinka last week, Djokovic got so angry at two missed smashes in a row, he reared back and catapulted a ball into the mostly deserted stands inside Arthur Ashe Stadium as hard as he possibly could. Seriously – full swing.
Except… the stands weren’t empty.
One man was sitting there, right on the trajectory of the ball. Had the ball not ricocheted off a seat a few rows in front of the man, it might well have been a direct hit. As it was, the fellow was a bit shook, and less than impressed.
(Wawrinka was just as cranky with the heat that day. But when he smacked a ball, he did it against the backstop on the court, When it bounced back, he was the only one in harm’s way).
But let’s not forget, the heat has been a real bear until the temperatures finally dropped Friday. Tempers have been pretty frayed.
Ostapenko vs. Sharapova – hard-hitting battle
Jelena Ostapenko is a fairly limited player still, who does a couple of things notably well. But you always figure she will get beaten by an opponent who is willing to step right in and feast on that vulnerable second serve.
It’s amazing how few of the women do, though. Most are so uncomfortable with the part of the court they need to be in to do that, they’d rather sit back and wait for the ball to come to them. That, of course, allows Ostapenko to escape punishment on that shot. And her second shot after the return is ridiculously good.
But if there’s a player who’s aggressive enough on the return to do it, it’s Maria Sharapova. She’s built a career on it.
The two have met only once, in the quarterfinals of Rome earlier this year. And it was a battle royale.
“It was a really long, physical match. It was our first ever meeting. So it was a chance to see and feel each other’s game. I was really impressed by her game,” Sharapova said. “She’s young and fearless, comes out swinging. She’s a Grand Slam champion, so that speaks for itself. And she’s got that experience in Grand Slams already. I think she likes the matchup of playing against me. Both quite aggressive players. But I do, as well.”
Ostapenko had all sorts of issues with American Taylor Townsend before closing out her second-round victory. Sharapova had some concerning red flags of her own in a win over Sorana Cirstea of Romania that ended in the early hours of Friday morning. She won it in straight sets. But it was not pretty, and the serve was a major struggle. The Russian was uncharacteristically agitated on the court, for reasons that also included the tough, humid conditions.
Kvitova v. Sabalenka – ditto
Aryna Sabalenka, the 20-year-old from Belarus, is the on-form player coming into the US Open after a great hard-court summer.
Will it stop in the third round on Saturday, against No. 5 seed Petra Kvitova?
The two met in the second round of Miami back in March. Kvitova pulled that one out in three sets.
But Sabalenka is an exponentially better, more confident player less than six months down the road.
WIMBLEDON – The practice court bookers at Wimbledon have a cheeky sense of humor.
Or perhaps they’re few years behind on the news?
Two days running, the schedulers put Maria Sharapova and former love Grigor Dimitrov on the same court, in back-to-back time slots.
Which meant, of course, that they were fated to run into each other on the changeover.
And, of course, they did.
When practice courts switch over to the next group, there’s no real set way things happen.
The only constant are the automatic multiple handshakes and high-fives between the players practicing together and their teams at the end of a session.
Sometimes, if the players coming off the court and those coming on know each other really well, there are handshakes and kisses and everyone on each team says hey to the others and it’s all very congenial.
On other occasions, it’s just very businesslike. One group of players and coaches pack up and the other hastens to get on court and start hitting, to not waste a minute of their allotted time.
Sometimes – and this is more true of the women and the men – there’s a slight nod, or the players just kind of ignore each other completely. They’re not being rude; they’re just wrapped up in their own deals. No one seems to take offense.
In this case, you could see that Dimitrov wanted to go over and say hello. But he was sort of hesitating until he just plucked up all his might and just went for it – damn the torpedoes, straight ahead.
He held out his hand for a high-five and … he got it!
The former pair chatted amiably for a bit, and then went on with their business.
Same time, different court
On Sunday, Sharapova was on Court 16, inside Aorangi Park.
And again, Dimitrov followed her again on the schedule
This time, the non-random run-in was already yesterday’s news.
Sharapova and Dimitrov dated for about two years, ending their relationship in early 2015. They seemed awfully happy for awhile, didn’t they?
But these intra-tennis relationships so often don’t work out. Despite the men and women playing the same sport, they aren’t in the same place at the same time all that often.
Dimitrov, seeded No. 6 in the men’s draw, faces a tough opponent in unseeded Stan Wawrinka in his first-round match on Monday.
Sharapova, seeded No. 24, faces qualifier Vitalia Diatchenko of Russia on Tuesday.