Triumphs have defined her in the past. Injuries and shock exits describe Maria Sharapova's tennis now. On Monday (January 20), the 26-year-old third seed crashed out of Australian Open in the fourth round after losing to 20th seeded Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia. It was technically an 'upset' but not many seemed perturbed.
Sharapova has been a dominant force in international tennis for over 10 years. But her lack of consistency and the inability to win major tournaments in the last year or so have led many to believe that the she is past her prime. It certainly looked that way during her 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 loss to Cibulkova - who is two years her junior. The 6 feet 1 inch player appeared rather frail as her serves backfired repeatedly with as many as seven double-faults in the third set.
It wasn't just in this match that Sharapova struggled. Her short script in this year's first Grand Slam was filled with chapters titled 'struggle', 'sweat', 'toil' and 'torment'. In the first round, she cruised past Bethanie Mattek-Sands 6-3, 6-4 but it was clear that her glaring errors were inexcusable. And the same errors became were highlighted once again when she barely survived her second round match against unseeded Italian Karin Knapp. It took her 3 hours and 28 minutes to force a 6-3, 4-6, 10-8 win. Her third round match was slightly easier but Sharapova admitted she gave a few chances to Alize Cornet during her 6-1, 7-6 (8/6) victory.
With four Grand Slam titles, Sharapova's campaign in Australian Open 2014 could have been far better than what her credentials would seek to suggest. After all, she even hired Sven Groeneveld as coach in a bid to revive her topsy-turvy career - one that has been handicapped by recurring injuries and form that is stubbornly missing.
"We've been working together since I got back on the court, and after seeing him on the opposing side for so many years, I'm excited to have him become a part of my team," Sharapova had said in November last year. "It has been a very seamless transition and I have had a lot of fun with the hard work we have put in so far. Looking forward to the year ahead." The start to the year though has hardly been anything to look forward to.
Sharapova has had, for a long time now, several battles to fight and her opponent on the other end of the court hasn't been one of them. She pulled out of US Open in August last year with a right shoulder injury. Such was the damage that she did not play again in the year and instead, chose to come back fighting hard in 2014. (Read: Sharapova content in taking 'baby steps' in road back from injury | Refreshed Sharapova ready for 2014)
Sharapova, who missed the last two months of the 2013 season because of her injury, has been No. 1 and has won all four Grand Slam singles titles. But she is now No. 4 and back to being an underdog with a suspect shoulder. After resuming practice in late October, she used low-pressure balls at first for serving, finally playing her first practice set in late November followed by a three-set exhibition Dec. 6 against Ana Ivanovic in Bogota, Colombia.
"I've been there in much tougher times, and I came back and I got through it," she said, referring to her shoulder surgery in 2008. "I know this is far from as serious as it was before, so that's a huge thing."
"I've had a really healthy off-season, something quite unusual because in the last few years I always had a little injury here and there," she said just weeks before the start of Australian Open. "I knew from the moment I withdrew from the (US) Open that I was going to give myself the right amount of time that I needed -- whether that was a week, a month, a few months, I didn't know. Nobody really knew." It seems nobody still knows.
On Monday, Sharapova clearly struggled with her hip and even had to call for a medical timeout - a sign that all is not well. "I have to look at the positives and see where I have come from in four or five months. I haven't played a lot of tennis in those six months," she said after her exit in Melbourne.
While she may not have played a lot of tennis in the recent past, life off the tennis court has been a lot more exciting. Known equally for her glamour and fashion statements, Sharapova - who already had a perfume named after her, launched a series of edible candies called 'Sugapova', last year.
There have been other major changes in Sharapova's world, none bigger than her relationship with Grigor Dimitrov, the 22-year-old Bulgarian now ranked 23rd who has long been considered an exceptional talent. The two have been photographed holding hands and even cuddling by the paparazzi. Last year, Roger Federer started a management company called Team8 and Dimitrov was one of his first signings. Dimitrov used to be called 'Baby Fed' because of the similarities between his game and that of the master. Sharapova was once engaged to the former NBA player Sasha Vujacic, but they split in 2012, the year Sharapova won the French Open.
"I had a challenging last year with going through a breakup while winning a Grand Slam," she told the New York Times in a recent interview. "So it's nice. I'm in a nice place in my life definitely, and I think I'm much more grateful now for the things I have just because I feel I've experienced a lot, so if I'm able to come home and be happy with someone, it's because I've learned from the past."
She added: "It's nice to see somebody that's next to me that is building their own life and becoming their own individual, respecting me at what I'm doing, giving me my life but being a huge part of it. It's a very difficult combination to find in any relationship, but I've been really blessed to have that." And while she would hope to get her tennis campaign back on track going forward, the year 2014 will have other highlights too -- Sharapova will be part of an American broadcasting team during the Winter Olympics in Sochi as she was raised here and has local knowledge.