What to Make of Maria Sharapova's Early Exit at the 2014 Australian Open

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistJanuary 20, 2014

Maria Sharapova of Russia leaves the Rod Laver Arena after her fourth round loss to Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Monday, Jan. 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)
Aaron Favila/Associated Press

Third-seeded Maria Sharapova's loss at the 2014 Australian Open to 20th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova is listed as an upset, but it's hardly surprising. For months, she has endured injuries and coaching changes. And as always, there is a mixed bag of media scrutiny following her to the locker room.

Her four matches at the Australian Open were part of her comeback to rebound as the top player in the world, but she has a long way to go.

There was a glimpse of trouble in her 6-3, 4-6, 10-8 second-round win over unseeded Karin Knapp. It was a draining match in scorching-hot temperatures, and the final set took nearly two hours.

So Sharapova was clearly not at her peak level, but she did show her competitive fight and mental toughness.  Given her recent months in rehabilitating her injured shoulder (which caused her to  withdraw from the 2013 U.S. Open) perhaps she overachieved to even reach the fourth round.

Sharapova's immediate postmatch comments told the Australian Open media that her loss could be considered a success.

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Sharapova explained to ESPNW that her hip strain and lack of competitive match play the last several months made it difficult to play her best:

I certainly would have loved to [have played] a little bit more before playing a Grand Slam, but this is the chance that I was given. I'm smart enough to be able to take it and acknowledge that I'm still pretty lucky to be in the draw and giving myself a chance to try to win it.

Shuji Kajiyama Shuji/Associated Press

But with Sharapova, there are always more angles to her losses, and her conquering opponent was more than irritated.

Cibulkova admitted that she suspected gamesmanship from Sharapova's difficulties to toss and retoss the ball on her serve, late in the match, as reported by Live Tennis:

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 I think it was something about tactic.

Aaron Favila/Associated Press

The critics contributed their own mixed bag of Sharapova commentary. SI Beyond the Baseline tweeted out the kind of view on Sharapova that acknowledges her star power and appeal but jabs at her style of play:

Call it a backhanded compliment. The intensity and grunting that Sharapova brings to her baseline attack is a grinding, straight vanilla approach that requires her to live or die with power groundstrokes and not a lot else.

Translation: Sharapova the star is much more glamorous than her trade.

And if Sharapova's tennis falls short, there are still media attempts to glean more about her relationship with men's Australian Open quarterfinalist Grigor Dimitrov. But apparently this information was not easy to obtain. At least Matt Cronin for Tennis.com could gloat a little bit:

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 18:  Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria celebrates winning his third round match against Milos Raonic of Canada during day six of the 2014 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 18, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Ro
Robert Prezioso/Getty Images

So the Sharapova soap opera caravan will always have its buffet of idiosyncrasies. Somehow, the chatter is able to provide a kind of smoke screen as Sharapova rides off to prepare for her next tennis performance.

If the Australian Open is any indication, 2014 will be another year of ups and downs. Sharapova is still hoping to be 100 percent healthy while getting in the matches she needs to peak with her ultra-competitive best.

This has never been easy for Sharapova. She puts so much into her physical grinding that she can rarely maintain her best tennis for long. Her four Grand Slam titles (2004, 2006, 2008, 2012) are all separated by gaps of injuries or inconsistent play.

She has been ranked No. 1 five times, but for only 21 total weeks.  Her latest stint at the top totaled only four weeks after her 2012 French Open victory.

Sindy Thomas/Associated Press

Will Sharapova find the zone again in an increasingly competitive but open women's field? Her former coach, Thomas Hogsted, helped her to become a more consistent server, but it remains to be seen if her game can be enhanced under new coach Sven Groeneveld.

Whether or not Sharapova can truly contend for her fifth Grand Slam title, she is a lightning rod for attention and an important star player on the WTA.