MELBOURNE, Australia — Her Grand Slam losing streak up to four matches, Maria Sharapova surely was aware questions about her future would be coming.
She was not able to provide answers.
Might this have been her last trip to the Australian Open, a tournament she won in 2008 as part of a career Grand Slam?
“I don’t know,” Sharapova said, her head shaking and eyes looking down. “It’s tough for me to tell what’s going to happen in 12 months’ time.”
Might she enter low-level tournaments to try to raise her WTA ranking? Once No. 1, all those years ago, her ranking had reached 145th entering play at Melbourne Park, and it will tumble outside the top 350 after a 6-3, 6-4 loss to Donna Vekic on Tuesday.
“I just don’t know,” Sharapova, 32, said. “I haven’t thought of my schedule moving forward from here yet.”
Joining Sharapova in a first-round exit were Johanna Konta, a three-time major semifinalist; Amanda Anisimova, a 2019 French Open semifinalist; and Felix Auger-Aliassime, the 20th-seeded man.
Seeded winners included the two-time major champion Simona Halep and No. 1 Rafael Nadal, who began his bid to equal Roger Federer’s record of 20 Grand Slam singles titles with a 6-2, 6-3, 6-0 victory over Hugo Dellien.
The man Nadal beat in last year’s United States Open final, No. 4 Daniil Medvedev, eliminated the 2019 Australian Open quarterfinalist Frances Tiafoe of the United States in four sets. Also advancing: the three-time major champion Stan Wawrinka; the two-time French Open runner-up Dominic Thiem; No. 12 Fabio Fognini; No. 16 Karen Khachanov; and No. 23 Nick Kyrgios, the Australian who spurred players to contribute funds to relief efforts for the country’s wildfire crisis. The TV analyst John McEnroe was even inspired to pony up $1,000 per set that Kyrgios wins the rest of the way in the tournament.
In early second-round play Wednesday, Naomi Osaka, the reigning champion and the No. 3 seed, beat 42nd-ranked Zheng Saisai, 6-2, 6-4, in swirling winds at Margaret Court Arena. Caroline Wozniacki, the former No. 1 who has announced she will retire after this tournament, survived against the No. 23 seed, Dayana Yastremska, 7-5, 7-5, and top-seeded Ashleigh Barty dispatched Polona Hercog, 6-1, 6-4. Coco Gauff, the 15-year-old American phenom, defeated Sorana Cîrstea, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5, and will face Osaka in the third round.
On the men’s side, sixth-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas got a walkover into the third round when Philipp Kohlschreiber pulled out of their scheduled match because a muscle strain.
For Sharapova, this is the only time in her long career that she has lost in the first round at three consecutive major tournaments.
Indeed, there was only one instance of Sharapova dropping opening matches at a Grand Slam tournament twice in a row: It happened 17 years ago, when she made immediate exits at the very first two major tournaments of her career.
Hampered by right shoulder problems that have been an off-and-on issue for more than a decade, Sharapova is no longer the player she was. The shoulder itself has held her back, as has the lack of match play because of her health. And since serving a 15-month ban after failing a drug test at the 2016 Australian Open, Sharapova has reached only one major quarterfinal.
She played a total of 15 matches last season, going 8-7. After a promising run to the fourth round in Melbourne a year ago, including a victory over reigning champion Caroline Wozniacki that was her most recent win against a top-20 opponent, Sharapova went 5-6 the rest of 2019.
“It’s tough to say I’m on the right track right now, 45 minutes after the match,” she said Tuesday. “But, I mean, there is no way to get out of it except to keep believing in yourself, because if you do do all the right things and you don’t believe in yourself, then that’s probably a bad formula.”
Against the 19th-seeded Vekic, who has never been past the second round at the Australian Open, Sharapova appeared to be righting herself at the outset of the second set, grabbing a 4-1 lead, before ceding the final five games.
“She’s still hitting it as hard as I can remember,” Vekic said.
Perhaps. But Sharapova was not putting the ball where she wanted, especially on her forehand side, which produced 18 miscues — more than Vekic’s full unforced error total of 17.
“She had some amazing results in her career. You know, her work ethic is pretty amazing. I saw her training in the off-season and she’s really working hard,” said Vekic, who practiced with Sharapova before the start of the season. “So I think her results will come.”
Maybe they will.
No one can know, of course. That includes Sharapova herself.
“As far as the work that I did, yeah, I did all the right things. I put in all the right work. There is no guarantee that even when you do all of those things, that you’re guaranteed victory in a first round or in the third round or in the final. That’s the name of this game,” she said. “That’s why it’s so special to be a champion, even for one time.”