Former world number one Maria Sharapova spent three years working her way back near the top of women's tennis following a shoulder injury in 2008. In 82 shambolic minutes, as she lost the Australian Open to Victoria Azarenka on Saturday, the Russian inspired little confidence that she might ever reach her halcyon days again.
Fourth-seed Sharapova's insipid 6-3, 6-0 loss to the 22-year-old Belarusian followed her straight-sets thrashing by Petra Kvitova in last year's Wimbledon final.
Under the bright lights of Rod Laver Arena, with a fourth grand slam title to play for and the top ranking up for grabs, the 24-year-old threw away the match.
Sharapova gave the large centre court crowd an error-strewn performance served up. Leading 2-0 against a grand-slam-final debutante looking nervous, Sharapova managed only one more game for the match and signed off with a backhand blasted into the net.
As Azarenka drew confidence from her opponent's profligacy, a change of approach was needed to stall the third-seed's charge but the Russian failed.Excuses offered
The baffling display led reporters to offer excuses in her post-match media conference. Was it nerves? Was it a bad warm-up? "I wasn't nervous, I was just making errors," Sharapova, whose leadup was clouded by injury, giggled.
"As hard as it is and as much as you want to be the champion, there's only one. I don't regret the work that I put in at all. Getting to this stage is great for me."
The run to the Open final will mean her ranking will rise to three next week, behind top-ranked Azarenka and Kvitova. With women's tennis under fire from all quarters, with critics targeting the rankings system and a lack of stand-out champions, Sharapova remains in the hunt to reclaim the top ranking she last held in June, 2008.
Despite her pledges to bounce back, the lop-sided defeat did little to shake the perception of a lack of depth in the women's game.