Beaten Maria Sharapova vows to work her way back to the top

Angelique Kerber of Germany celebrates her straight sets win over Maria Sharapova in the third round of the Australian Open. Picture: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Angelique Kerber of Germany celebrates her straight sets win over Maria Sharapova in the third round of the Australian Open. Picture: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
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She is tough, is Maria Sharapova. She is out of the Australian Open, brushed aside by Angelique Kerber, but she is anything but beaten.

It is more than nine months since she made her return from a 15-month drugs ban and, starting from scratch, she has inched her way up the rankings to her current position of No.48.

With no seeding to protect her, her every trip to a grand slam is fraught with danger. At the US Open, she took on (and beat) Simona Halep in the opening round; here she was playing the 2016 Australian champion in the third round. It does not seem to get any easier.

Kerber, though, has had her own problems. Two years ago, she won the Australian and US Open titles and took over the world No.1 ranking. But the pressure of defending her position at the top was too much last year and nervous and tense every time she stepped on court, she was simply not the same player.

Now back to her preferred role of the hunter rather than the hunted, she is the form player in Melbourne and she took the greatest delight in dismantling Sharapova 6-1, 6-3.

It may not have been easy, but Sharapova took her defeat like a pro. She does not do self-pity. Her response to this latest humiliation was to promise to work harder, work smarter and get back into the thick of battle as soon as possible.

“I think there are a lot of things that I need to get better at and improve on,” she said. “But looking at the overall picture, the overall beginning of this year, finishing the tournament, first thing is that I’m healthy. That, to me, is a big thing because I’ll be back on the practice court, I’m not starting from zero. There’s a lot to build from. Personally that’s important for me.

“This is a process. It’s a lot of things that take time. To be able to get these matches, players that are playing this well, I’m going to face a lot of them this year. I’ll have to bring it. Today was not enough.”

The women’s tour is littered with gifted players with a fatal flaw. Some are mentally fragile, some do not work hard enough, some are good but just not good enough. But Sharapova, whatever anyone thinks of her, is both a warrior and a worker. When someone suggested that she might like a bit of a break after the loss to Kerber, she snorted.

“If I’m looking for rest at this point in the season, there’s something wrong,” she said. “I don’t shy away from the work. It’s never easy to be on the losing end of things, be sitting in a press conference talking about a loss.

“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. I have to. I mean, there’s no doubt there are days where you just don’t want to. But you push through them. I think those are the days that ultimately make you a winner.”

In order to get back into the winners’ enclosure, she is taking her inspiration from the likes of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. They are both older than Sharapova and yet both have, in their time, come back from long injury breaks to win major titles again. They are living proof that anything is possible.

“I definitely take great examples of a Federer or a Nadal,” she said, “or a Serena and Venus that have continued to have the motivation that they do at this age, the commitment and the work they’re able to put in. It’s not just walking through a grand slam tunnel and getting on court.

“There’s so much more to it. I have a lot of admiration for that because I know what goes into creating those moments and getting to that stage. That definitely inspires me, absolutely.”

Her return to the top may be taking longer than she would have liked, but Sharapova will not give up. Having come back from two career-threatening shoulder injuries in the past, Sharapova knows how to be patient. Having won five grand slam titles, she knows how to win. And if Federer and Nadal can do it, so can Sharapova.