Before I even start, if you are a person who is going to just rip Maria Sharapova, this blog entry is not for you. Her career does include a suspension, and that must be acknowledged, but I am here to be fair. I haven’t blogged in a very long time, due to many personal crises. So I am not coming back in a cloak of negativity.
One of the biggest things I’ll remember about Masha (besides preferring not to be called Masha) is how she rose above the objectification she faced from from nearly the beginning of her professional career. A year before she broke through to win Wimbledon 2004, she faced questions about winning a “battle of the babes” match against Ashley Harkleroad and all of the comparisons to Anna Kournikova. Some of the Kournikova comparisons were fair, following in the footsteps of a prominent Russian female player. Some were not, focusing on her looks and body. Even later in her career she was asked about having the “best legs” on tour…and the reporter asking wasn’t talking about her movement.
Some would say she profited handsomely on her looks, for many years making more in endorsements than other players…notably Serena Williams…with greater achievements. That point is fair. However, I would say it’s incomplete. To begin with, I don’t think people should take it out on Sharapova for signing on the dotted line when companies asked to give her millions to endorse their products. If you think that’s unfair to other players, take it out on the companies that gave her the money. Who on earth turns down millions of dollars like that? I couldn’t win a point off a professional tennis player unless they made an error to gift me one. But if Nike wants to fatten my bank account for some reason, then show me the money! Moreover, I never thought Masha was a player banking on her looks without doing the work on the court. It was never style over substance. She might be a princess on the outside, but she has always been a street fighter on the inside. If I had to describe her playing style in one word, it would be tenacious. She was going to come right after you with everything she had…and if that didn’t work, she would just double down. I think it’s amazing that she earned a 5 Major titles, a Career Grand Slam, 36 singles tournaments wins, 645 singles match wins, an Olympic Silver Medal and a world #1 ranking with a game that honestly doesn’t feature much variety. She just worked extremely hard and tried to bludgeon her way through opponents. More often than not, it worked.
I can hear people saying “it didn’t work against Serena.” Yes, that’s true. A lot of players, great players, also didn’t have the game to best Serena. I don’t look at that as the bigger point, though. The bigger point is Sharapova’s career achievements are still Hall of Fame worthy and should not be diminished by seeing everything through the lens of a Serena comparison. Masha wasn’t as good a player as Serena. Then again, nobody was. After on court and off court drama with Sharapova, Williams clearly made sure to bring her A game every time she played Maria. However, none of that erases the numbers Sharapova put up in her illustrious career. I can’t put Masha in the all-time great category of Serena, Chris Evert, Margaret Court, Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova and others. But I can put her in the category of all-time greats of her time period. While players like Venus Williams and Justine Henin have better overall career numbers, from the time Maria won Wimbledon to the date of her retirement, only Serena among women’s players has more Major titles. The majority of titles for Henin and Venus came before Sharapova arrived as a great. And since then players like Caroline Wozniacki, Simona Halep, Li Na, Petra Kvitova, Garbine Muguruza, Angelique Kerber and others have not matched Masha’s Major count.
Ok, meldonium. Can’t avoid it. Must talk about it. It’s a blemish to be sure. However, until January of 2016 it was not a banned substance. That’s just a fact. So all the people belly-aching over how to view the years she took it, I have a simpe response. It doesn’t matter. If it was legal, and it was, we can’t go back and render it retroactively illegal. The only Major performance I take away from Maria is the 2016 Australian Open. That’s also what makes me believe she and her team missed it on the new list of banned substances (she took it under the name mildronate). As soon as it was moved to the banned list, she failed the test. If she had been taking it for half of 2016 and then tested positive in mid to late 2016, I’d be more suspicious that she was knowingly trying to cheat. In other words, it doesn’t look like she was doing anything to mask it in her system. She used it when it was legal, which is not cheating. Then she immediately gets caught. To me, that looks like she wasn’t doing anything to hide it, and thus makes me think she truly just missed catching that she could no longer use mildronate. Also, there is some discussion around what level of advantage meldonium even gives an athlete. It’s also used for medicinal purposes. I don’t know if I buy that part of Masha’s explanation, but I understand why she can’t say she was using it for athletic purposes all those years. Regardless, it was legal all those years. I give her a strike for the Aussie Open in 2016. But she served her suspension and will always have that stain on her record and personal reputation. I will add no more.
Many detractors say to look at her lack of reaching former heights since she’s returned from suspension as some sort of indictment. I’d respond that back in 2016 her body was already breaking down. There were whispers back then that 2016 might be her last on tour. When she called the fairly ugly carpet press conference, a lot of tennis fans and press thought it was a retirement announcement. I am sure the only reason she battled her body over the past few years was to prove it wasn’t the meldonium. The problem is, she was almost done 4 years ago. And since then, the game that she used to bludgeon opponents doesn’t work anymore. She was never a great mover, but she was even less so now. Her serve, which was spotty in the months even before the suspension, was no longer the weapon it was in her younger days…due in large part to shoulder problems. So I don’t see anything after her suspension serving as a minus to anything she accomplished.
Maria was never beloved in the locker room, choosing to keep her distance from most other players. She also traded barbs through the press with other players (“isn’t she back in Poland now?”, “I’m in the third round, I don’t know where she is”). I just think she saw the court as a place of battle. No quarter asked and none given. She had a mentality we celebrate in other athletes like the NBA’s Russell Westbrook, where it’s all about the competition. Not there to make friends. In fact, it seems like Sharapova had a few friends on the men’s tour. That makes sense to me. Those were not her competitors. Other players were able to compete and still make friends. Good for them. Everybody is different. I think Maria was professional. And surprisingly, perhaps, she did have a biting sense of humor at times with the press. She actually likes a good laugh, so far as I can tell from a distance. She just had none for opponents trying to beat her on court.
Lastly, I’ll remember Maria as a business-wise entrepreneur. That might outlast her tennis career. For all the complaints about Sharapova making more than other players off-court, don’t forget that for many years she had one of Cole Haan’s (at that time a subsidiary of Nike) best selling ballet flats. She was making money, but she was also out there marketing like crazy to support her brands, returning on the investment companies put in her. Now she is branching out with her own brands, notably Sugarpova. Again, Maria Sharapova is not style over substance. I think because of her background, juxtaposed against Serena Williams, Maria can be dismissed as somebody who didn’t have to work to get what she was given. Actually, I’d put it this way. It’s possible that she didn’t HAVE to work to get what she was given…but I’ll be damned if she did work her butt off anyway! That’ how I’ll remember Maria Sharapova. Tenacious.