Maria Sharapova suffered a harsh introduction Saturday to the expectations that will stalk her for the rest of her career. After a third-round loss at the U.S. Open, she walked into a packed news conference and faced questions that would have been unconscionable before she won Wimbledon this summer.
Was this U.S. Open loss the biggest disappointment of her career? What did she have to say to all the devastated fans? Were there major, uncorrectable problems with her tennis?
And to think, just a year ago Sharapova would have been thrilled with this result: A hard-fought, three-set loss to Mary Pierce in the third round of the U.S. Open.
"The expectations are different now, and I understand that," said Sharapova, seeded seventh, after her 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 loss. "I didn't play that well, just making a lot of little mistakes. I know that after Wimbledon, I have to win. My life has changed."
Sharapova's loss marked the first major upset in a women's draw that's gone incredibly to form, as thirteen of the top sixteen seeded players are still around.
The men's side has been considerably less predictable. Third-seeded Carlos Moya lost Saturday in the third round, and nine of the other top 16 seeds are also out of the tournament.
Sharapova's upset, though, proved most jarring. She is perhaps the most watched woman in tennis, an attractive 17-year-old with bruising groundstrokes.
Adoring fans nearly filled Arthur Ashe Stadium on Saturday afternoon to watch her play. They began to celebrate when Sharapova went up a break in the third set before folding to Pierce, a veteran who has never made it past the quarterfinals in 11 U.S. Opens.
"I thought I had it," Sharapova said. "To get that close to winning and fall short is just really tough. There are a lot of things I still need to work on.
"I'm just going to get back to work. My game is still improving."
Since Sharapova beat Serena Williams in straight sets to win Wimbledon, her celebrity has grown faster than her tennis. In the weeks since her Wimbledon win, Sharapova has been on one late night show, two nationally televised morning shows and on the cover of a dozen magazines. Meantime, her tennis has suffered.
In the four tournaments she has played since Wimbledon, Sharapova has not advanced past the third round.
She lost to Anastasia Myskina and Vera Zvonareva, two fellow Russians who she had never struggled with before. Her serve, normally consistent, rarely went in.
"It's tough, all the pressure," Sharapova said. "But it's my career. It's my life. Those are the things that I've just got to deal with. That's what happens when you win something big. You just have to adjust to that and find a way to get comfortable."
She never accomplished that here, looking shaky in each of her first two matches. She went to three sets with little-known American Laura Granville in a first-round match, and then needed three sets to beat Jelena Jankovic two days later.
In both matches, she struggled with consistency. She looked like the Wimbledon champion one set and then, the next, she looked like a 17-year-old playing in her eighth Grand Slam.
"She probably felt nervous," Granville said. "It was almost like playing two different players there sometimes. She would play really well, and then she'd struggle. At first, it didn't look like she was too confident."
She has also been distracted here by the school hostage situation that unfolded in her home country. At night, she goes back to the hotel and reads news stories on the Internet. She watches cable news in the locker room in an effort to keep updated.
Saturday, Sharapova wore a black ribbon on her dress to honor the children who died in Russia.
"It's just something I decided to do," she said. "I've been thinking about all that situation a lot, and it's just terrible. It's the type of thing you can't get off your mind. It makes you realize all the things more important than tennis, and that can make it hard to focus."
On Saturday Sharapova sometimes looked lost or distracted, especially in the third set. Normally a powerful player, she swung hesitantly and loosely on her groundstrokes. She kept the ball in play, sure. But, usually, Pierce smashed back a winner to end the point.
Sharapova double-faulted on the match's most crucial point, at 3-4, 30-40 in the final set. The crowd gasped. Pierce quietly pumped her fists.
"I didn't really expect that," Pierce said. "But I controlled the pace, and that usually means you're going to win the match. I did what I wanted today.
"It's been a long time since I felt this good. I feel light as air."
Weighed down by heavy expectations, Sharapova felt the opposite.
"I'll just try to move on," she said. "I mean, there are more important things than me losing this match. I'm still young, with a lot of my career ahead.
"You know, I am that kind of athlete that loves the nerves and the pressure because that's part of the game. But it takes a little while to get used to all the expectations."