MELBOURNE, Australia -- Just 45 minutes after losing in the first round at the Australian Open on Tuesday, former champion Maria Sharapova walked into the media center with a duffel bag on her shoulder and a frown on her face. Although she spent much of 2019 insisting that she wasn't walking away from tennis, she did little to dispel such a notion this time around. She looked somewhat despondent when a reporter asked if she plans to play at the tournament again.
"I don't know," she said. "I don't know. I was fortunate to get myself to be here, and thankfully to Craig [Tiley] and the team allowing me to be part of this event. It's tough for me to tell what's going to happen in 12 months' time."
Sharapova's 6-3, 6-4 loss to Donna Vekic marked her third straight loss in the first round of a major and her fourth such loss in the past nine. Prior to that, she was a staggering 49-3 in opening-round matches. It has been a devastating fall from grace for the five-time Grand Slam champion, who was suspended for 15 months following a positive drug test in 2016 for meldonium, a banned substance Sharapova said she had been taking for a heart condition.
Since her return in 2017, she has advanced to the quarterfinals of a major just once (2018 French Open). Following a fourth-round run in Melbourne last season, Sharapova hasn't made it past the second round in a tournament. Plagued by a shoulder injury, she played a limited schedule in 2019 and struggled to win when she was able to take the court. She's currently ranked No. 145 in the world, having received a wild card to play in Melbourne, and is expected to fall to No. 366 at the conclusion of the tournament.
Each loss has made fans, critics and members of the media openly wonder when Sharapova will decide to retire. The 32-year-old has seemed almost offended by the question in the past, but Tuesday was different.
Sharapova's refusal to commit to the future marks one of the first times that she has seemed to acknowledge the inevitable end of her legendary career. She said she had no idea about any tournaments she would be playing down the road, saying she hadn't thought about it yet. In fact, she didn't have a concrete answer for much of anything.
"I would like to," Sharapova said when asked if she thinks she is healthy enough to play a full schedule going forward. "I don't know -- you know, I don't have a crystal ball to tell you if I can or if I will, but I would love to, yeah."
For a brief moment Tuesday, it looked as if Sharapova would be answering questions about the signature comeback she had so desperately been seeking. She held a 4-1 lead in the second set but then lost the final five games. It was all over in less than an hour and a half.
When she walked off the court, Sharapova didn't look surprised or angry. She was expressionless, almost as if resigned to her fate. Sharapova was once one of the biggest draws on tour, but Rod Laver Arena appeared to be about halfway-filled for much of her match, with fans split over their loyalties. Every "Let's go, Maria!" cheer was matched by one for Vekic. It was hardly a reception fit for a former champion, but as that victory was 12 years ago, perhaps it was another sign that her time in the sport is coming to its end. Even her trademark grunts sounded tired and signaled more of an effort to return the ball, as opposed to being the intimidating (albeit polarizing) noise they once were.
Sharapova is hardly alone when it comes to doubt regarding the future. Venus Williams, the seven-time Grand Slam champion, has faced similar questions about the end of her time in the sport for the past few years. While still a crowd favorite and revered by many for her contributions on and off the court, Williams' results of late have been similar to those of Sharapova. After a resurgence in 2017, with two major final appearances as well as a semifinal run, Williams hasn't advanced past the third round at a Slam. Monday's loss to Coco Gauff marked her fifth first-round exit in that time period and her second such loss to the 15-year-old Gauff.
Williams and Sharapova have more major titles than anyone else on tour, save for Williams' sister, Serena, but neither has won one since 2014 nor appeared in a final since 2017. As Venus Williams approaches her 40th birthday, it's hard to imagine that she will want to play much longer, considering her recent results. But the notoriously private Williams, who rarely answers questions in news conferences with more than a sentence, gave no indication Monday that she is considering the end.
"A little this, a little that," she said of her upcoming tour schedule. "We'll see. I'm planning to [play in tournaments before Indian Wells in March], yeah."
Ranked No. 55 in the world, Williams has expressed her hope to play in the Olympics in Tokyo this summer, but with such a strong crop of American women, it seems unlikely that she will make the team. She is tied as the most decorated Olympic tennis player of all time, with five medals, including four golds, but that might not be enough.
No matter how impressive the résumés of both players, the facts remain: Their opposition will continue to get younger, faster and stronger, and they will be unable to do any of those things. Their accomplishments fade further with each early exit, and they will continue to face questions and doubts about their futures on court. There must come a time -- perhaps even this week -- when they must decide whether it's worth continuing.
Unlike the many athletes who struggle in their post-sports lives, neither should have any problems with how to spend her time or even where her future paychecks will come from, as both already have several successful business ventures. Williams has a clothing line, as well as an interior design firm, and Sharapova has her own brand of gourmet candy.
For Sharapova, it seemed obvious that she's at least contemplating what's next but perhaps isn't ready to bow out just yet.
"It's tough to say I'm on the right track right now, 45 minutes after the match," Sharapova said. "But, I mean, there is no way to get out of [the current drought] except to keep believing in yourself because if you do all the right things and you don't believe in yourself, then that's probably a bad formula."