Maria Sharapova insisted on Thursday that she still has the “internal fire and motivation” to compete professionally, despite the lingering shoulder problem that kept her out of action for long stretches this season.
The former world No 1 was only able to play in eight events in 2019, contesting just 15 matches in total.
The Russian five-time Major champion made her first on-court appearance since her US Open first round exit in August in an exhibition in Abu Dhabi on Thursday, where she fought back from a break down in each set to defeat Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic 6-4, 7-5.
“Any chance that I get to come out and play competitively is a really good day because I just haven’t played a lot,” Sharapova told reporters at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship.
“Definitely I’m coming out of this match happy that I was out there again and it can only get better from here.”
While she wouldn’t reveal too many details about the state of her shoulder injury, she did say she “felt fine” after her clash with Tomljanovic, while keeping her expectations in check having been sidelined for nearly four months.
Sharapova plans on travelling Down Under for next month’s Australian Open but confirmed she will not be playing the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
With many question marks still surrounding her form and her shoulder, she’s unsure what her 2020 calendar will look like.
“I think that will be one of the biggest challenges for the new year, it’s to have a set schedule,” said the 32-year-old.
“I definitely look forward to going to Australia and seeing how things go, see how the body holds up there.
“It’s tough to tell, I’ve barely played any events last year. The start and stopping was one of the most challenging parts of the year as well, just when you think I got going a little bit I had to tone it down and stop and then just keep training. Although it seems I haven’t played actually I’ve been working a lot.”
The US-based Russian will fly home for Christmas, then compete in a couple of exhibition matches in Hawaii, before heading to Australia where she plans on playing a warm-up event ahead of the opening Grand Slam of the season in Melbourne.
Asked how she’s been able to maintain her spirits during her lengthy struggle with injuries, Sharapova added: “I really love what I do. I think you see it when I am on the court, when I do have the chance to compete, I really enjoy being there. I really have a great purpose for what I do.
“I have goals and dreams for life after tennis, but I still have that internal fire and motivation. Really, all on my mind when I wake up is getting into my sports gear and going out and working to be a better tennis player.”
Now down at 131 in the world rankings, Sharapova insists she hasn’t considered retirement from the sport just yet, and realises injuries are part of every athlete’s life.
She said she takes inspiration from Rafael Nadal, who has had his fair share of injuries himself.
“I’m in awe of his whole career. I think a lot of it is being really smart strategically about his schedule.
“From his point of view, he likes a lot of matches to feel confident, but you need to be healthy in order to do that, so you have to make the right decisions and that’s certainly something that I can learn from him,” she said of the Spanish world No 1 and 19-time Major winner who is also competing at the UAE tournament.