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By Erik Gudris | Saturday, January 25, 2020

Serena Williams

Early exits in Melbourne signal 2020 as a crossroads year in the careers of Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova.

Photo credit: Mark Peterson/Corleve

Every January marks the beginning of a new tennis season, and with it new opportunities for many players to make something big happen for them.

But early exits at this year’s Australian Open already has tennis fans wondering what’s in store for some of the biggest names in the history of women’s tennis.

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As we all know, when a player decides it’s time to end their career is a personal one. Just this week, former world No. 1 and Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki ended her career after a third round loss to Ons Jabeur. Wozniacki announced Melbourne would be her last tournament, so the end was not a surprise.

Yet the early round exits of Serena Williams, Venus Williams, and Maria Sharapova has raised even more speculation on when these three all-time greats of the game might call time on their careers, and if 2020 might just be that year.

The least likely to do so is Serena.

This despite Serena having endured a tough three set loss to China’s Wang Qiang in the third round. Serena, having just won Auckland a few weeks ago, entered as the oddsmakers favorite to win Melbourne. But Serena’s hopes of winning a 24th major title and tie Margaret Court’s record just got a little tougher this year, especially since Melbourne has been such a go-to Slam for her in her career. In her press conference after the loss Serena, giving full credit to her opponent, later called her performance in the match “unprofessional”. But only because she couldn’t figure out a way to victory.

Serena very much wants to hold the all-time major title record. But that quest has found her just missing out in the last few years, having reached four major finals, yet not holding the trophy at the end.

“I definitely do believe (I can win another Slam) or I wouldn’t be on tour,” Williams said after the loss. I don’t play just to have fun and to lose is really not fun, to play to lose, personally. I seem to do well at the last two slams of the year. I’ve won them all several times so each one definitely is an opportunity for me to go out there and win.”

Serena’s will to win, and will to be the greatest, is unquestionable. But at 38 years old, it may well be that time, and her body, may not respond always the way she wants it to on court.

2020 likely won’t be the last year of Serena’s career, barring unforeseen circumstances. But it certainly might be the year, depending on her performance at the majors, that decides how her career will eventually conclude, and if she will be able to make peace with it, especially if she doesn’t break Court’s record.

For Serena’s sister Venus, things are certainly different.

The 39-year-old older Williams sister endured year another first round loss at a major at the hands of rising 15-year-old phenom Coco Gauff. That Gauff went on to beat defending champion Naomi Osaka a few rounds later, makes Venus’ loss seem not as dramatic.

Photo credit: Mark Peterson/Corleve

Yet, Venus is hoping 2020 proves to be a better than 2019 that saw her end the year outside the top 50.

The question of when Venus will retire has dogged the seven-time major champion for years now. Williams silenced many of her critics after a stellar 2017 season that saw her reach the finals of Melbourne and Wimbledon, proving again that Venus truly believed she could win another major. It’s hard to say if that will happen now considering her lack of a big result at a major since then.

Venus hasn’t retired yet simply because she loves playing and loves the game. Yet if 2020 proves another challenging year for Venus, and her ranking drops even more, how much longer will she continue? Only Venus knows that, and it’s certainly going to be fascinating to watch how she responds this year.

The biggest question mark of 2020 belongs to Maria Sharapova.

After her recent suspension for testing positive for meldonium, and then more injury issues with her shoulder, the former No. 1 has struggled to stay relevant in the last few years.

Sharapova, a former Australian Open champion in 2016, needed a wildcard just to get into this year’s event. She made a quick exit in the first round at the hands of No. 19 seed Donna Vekic. Afterwards, Sharapova was candid that she really didn’t know if this might be her last trip to Melbourne, or even if this would be her last year on tour.

“It’s tough for me to tell what’s going to happen in 12 months time,” Sharapova said after the loss. “I don’t have a crystal ball to tell you if I can or if I will play, but I would love to. It’s tough to say if I’m on the right track right now 45 minutes after the match. But there is no way to get out of it except to keep believing if yourself, because if you do all the right things and you don’t believe in yourself, then that’s probably a bad formula.”

After this loss, Sharapova will fall out of the top 350. Though she will likely get wildcards into any tournaments she wants, if she doesn’t start winning matches, then it’s going to be hard for her to build any kind of momentum. Add in, that even she admits that her body is never going to be 100%, one has to wonder what exactly, except love for the sport, keeps Sharapova out there. Especially if she finally admits she may never be a contender for a major title again.

Will just playing for the love of the sport, and enduring constant questions about why she keeps playing, really be ok with her? Time will tell.

Photo credit: Mark Peterson/Corleve

2020 could well prove to be the final year for any of these players. But as we know, retirement in tennis is never a certain thing. After all, this year will see the return of Kim Clijsters who has retired from the sport twice now.

And let’s remember that when Clijsters won the 2009 US Open during her first comeback, it was against a young Caroline Wozniacki in the final. Which proves that certainly in the women’s game, when someone says this is their last year on tour, we probably should simply say to them, “If you say so.”


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