MELBOURNE, Australia — Less than 24 hours after top-seeded Serena Williams was ousted by a zoning big hitter, No. 3 Maria Sharapova suffered the same fate. No. 20 Dominika Cibulkova scored the upset, knocking out a somewhat injured Sharapova 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 in the fourth round of the Australian Open on Monday.
It had been a scratchy tournament for Sharapova, and that was before she sustained this new injury to her hip. She entered the tournament having played only six matches since last year’s French Open final after a right-shoulder injury ended her season in August. In her second-round match, she endured a three-hour, 28-minute battle in searing heat against Karin Knapp, an unheralded journeywoman ranked No. 44. Sharapova survived 6-3, 4-6, 10-8, but the question marks were there. After a spotty third-round win over No. 25 Alize Cornet, Sharapova admitted that she was feeling the rust and actually went back out to the practice court following the match to find her rhythm off the ground.
“I haven’t been playing the best tennis of this tournament, but I found ways to get through to the last two matches,” Sharapova said after Monday’s loss. “Tried to do that again today, but she played extremely well.”
Initially it looked like that extra practice session was precisely what she needed as her match against Cibulkova got underway. Sharapova rolled through the first set behind clean baseline hitting and effective serving. She served at 76 percent and won 63 percent of those serves.
Cibulkova, a diminutive Slovakian who looks like she’s coming out of her shoes when she takes her huge forehand cuts, began to connect in the second set on the go-for-broke shots that are the bedrock of her game. She built a 5-0 lead and looked on her way to earning the unique distinction of bageling Sharapova twice at the Slams. (Cibulkova dominated the Russian 6-0, 6-2 at the 2009 French Open.) But as her lead grew she backed off her shots and Sharapova took advantage, winning four straight games to close the gap. Then, as Cibulkova stepped to the line to try to serve it out the set for a third time, Sharapova inexplicably let her off the hook. She played a horrendous game, missing two second-serve returns badly, and Cibulkova finally won the set.
“She hit two second serves I should have made and I didn’t,” Sharapova said. “That would give her confidence and me not so much.”
Setting aside Cibulkova’s great baseline play, it was clear there was something wrong with Sharapova. In the middle of the second set, she sat down on a changeover and deliberately crossed her left ankle over her right knee to stretch out her hip. Sharapova was reluctant to speak about the injury after the match.
“I mean, those aches and pains are expected when you spend a long time on the court,” she said. “Just have to play through it.”
She took a medical timeout to assess and treat the injury after losing the second set, but when she came back her movement out of the corners was compromised. Cibulkova took immediate control of the set, and unlike in the second, she held her nerve and hung on for the win.
Sharapova tried to keep perspective on the loss, especially given this just her second tournament since August.
“It’s never easy,” she said. “We are very big competitors. I think that’s why I have been so successful, is because my competitiveness in the past. It’s moments like this that ultimately shape and you make you who you are, and that’s how you bounce back. It’s easy just to be successful, but it’s how many times you’re able to come back from the tough moments and losses and injuries that really define who you are as an athlete.”
Cibulkova celebrates her upset of Sharapova:
Cibulkova rehashes the biggest moments of the match:
The winning moment
They said it
Sharapova on what kind of pain her hip issue caused her: “I don’t think it’s rocket science. Just when you play a lot of tennis, you’re going to get these types of aches and pains and certain movements that you feel it on.”
Sharapova on staying in Melbourne to watch boyfriend Grigor Dimitrov, who is into the quarterfinals: “You know what? I hope he stays as long as possible. I’m not sure what my traveling schedule is at the moment.”
Cibulkova on Sharapova messing around with her toss: “When the match was coming to the end, I was getting like a little bit angry about that. I kept talking to myself, like, ‘Why is she doing that?’ I thought it was on the purpose. But it was just maybe few seconds and I let my thinking go away. But that what I was also working on during my preseason, to let me stay focused.”
Cibulkova on Sharapova using gamesmanship: “There are many ways that you can beat a player. She knew that I am playing well. I was playing well through the whole tournament. She knew it, for sure. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe she was just really feeling nervous on the serve and not doing the toss thing on the purpose. But, yeah, I think it was something about tactic.”
As undersized Russel Wilson holds his own, 5-3 Dominika Cibulkova d. Sharapova 3-6, 6-4, 6-1—
Jon Wertheim (@jon_wertheim) January 20, 2014
Cibulkova was somewhat bothered by Sharapova catching her service toss, thought Maria might have been trying to get into her head.—
Matt Cronin (@TennisReporters) January 20, 2014
This post has been updated.