By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Picking up her racquet bag and marching straight out of Rod Laver Arena without a nod or a wave, Maria Sharapova's abrupt exit after her fourth-round loss to Dominika Cibulkova on Monday spoke volumes of her disdain for a forgettable Australian Open.
After a long layoff and with doubts surrounding the state of her troublesome right shoulder, the 26-year-old entered the tournament with only four matches of preparation and with rust caked on so thick she could not shake it off.
She had enough fight to survive three tests against unheralded opponents at Melbourne Park, but against 24th seed Cibulkova, a tenacious counter-puncher who has worried the Russian in the past, the wheels fell off.
The shoulder was put to one side as a hip strain came to the fore, and the 2008 champion took a medical time-out between the second and third sets of the 3-6 6-4 6-1 loss.
Blaming injuries has never been Sharapova's way, and the Russian has grit her teeth and toughed it out before on her way to winning four grand slam titles.
"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," she told reporters glumly.
"I certainly would have loved to play 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."
While she played down the hip injury, Sharapova's serve may not be as easily fixed before her next tournament, likely to be the Paris indoors starting next Monday.
Once a formidable weapon, but her Achilles heel since undergoing major shoulder surgery, the serve was broken seven times by Cibulkova and was unpredictable throughout her Melbourne Park campaign.
Sharapova grimaced and threw tormented looks at the player's box in a third set that featured seven double-faults and 19 unforced errors.
Even though she was playing well below her best, Sharapova's early exit may be counted as an opportunity lost after her long-time nemesis Serena Williams was dumped out of the tournament by Ana Ivanovic on Sunday.
Sharapova said she was unlikely to mope around for long.
"I came back from an injury and I feel happy to give myself that opportunity to try to get back and play well, and I want to take it," she said.
"I don't want to just, because I know if I'm going to be sitting around everyone else will take it. It's either try and take it yourself, or just saying, you know, I can do other things in my life.
"I have always been a go-getter in my career, not just in tennis, and I still believe in that. I feel I have that type of motivation and drive, I'll always be there."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)