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One of the most accomplished tennis players of the last 50 years retired this week.
But unlike in other sports, when a retirement announcement sees a flood of tweets from former teammates and competitors, Maria Sharapova’s official goodbye hasn’t led to an outpouring of memories on social media, at least not from many of her peers. Billie Jean King was among the few notables to pay homage, saying Sharapova’s “business success is just as impressive as her tennis achievements.”
Nike has plastered Twitter timelines with an ad honoring Sharapova, with text over her face, staring intently into the camera, saying her aggressive nature was a positive and just the thing the game of women’s tennis needed.
— Nike (@Nike) February 26, 2020
Aggression isn’t bad. All athletes are aggressive to an extent; you can’t be successful without it.
But Sharapova’s style wasn’t just on-court power and the grit needed to play nearly 20 years as a professional despite significant shoulder issues for a stretch. For as beloved as she is in her native Russia, it doesn’t seem she’ll be missed too deeply in the sport.
It’s a complicated legacy.
On paper, Sharapova is one of the most successful women’s players of the Open Era, which began in 1968. In those 50-some years, only 12 women have won at least five Grand Slam titles, and only six can claim a career Slam — Sharapova is in both of those exclusive clubs.
She deserves credit for improving her play on clay; she once called herself a “cow on ice” on the surface, but the Slam she won twice was the French Open.
For years she was not only the highest-earning female athlete in the world, she was one of the highest-earning athletes period. According to Forbes, Sharapova made $325 million in her career, the vast majority of it through endorsements with a litany of corporations like Nike, Motorola and Tag Heuer.
And that is part of the reason her legacy is complicated.
We may never know how much of Sharapova’s rise and fame were due to her talent and how much were due to her looks. Lithe, blonde, 6-foot-2 and easy on the eyes, she was a welcome antidote for far too many to the Williams sisters, particularly Serena.
The tennis world was very slow to accept the Williamses, black girls from Compton, California, who had the audacity to wear braids adorned with beads on the hallowed courts of Wimbledon — and the argument can be made that it still hasn’t fully embraced them despite a combined 30 Grand Slam singles titles. When Sharapova won her first Slam by beating Serena at Wimbledon in 2004 the sport thought it had its new princess and a budding rivalry.
That rivalry never materialized, at least not on court.
Serena and Sharapova met 22 times, and Serena won 20 of those matches. Twenty. For those of you that like numbers, that’s a 90.9 winning percentage for Serena.
Yet Sharapova has a thinly veiled dislike of Serena, and the feeling is mutual. In her 2016 memoir, Sharapova wrote fairly extensively about her opponent, admitting that at the 2002 Wimbledon champions ball her “body just would not let me” stand to salute that year’s winner, even as the rest of the room welcomed Serena, who had just won the singles title over Venus and the doubles title with Venus, with an ovation.
The first time they played one another, in Miami in 2004, Sharapova described Serena thusly: “Her physical appearance is much stronger and bigger than you realize watching TV. She has thick arms and thick legs and is so intimidating and strong. And tall, really tall.”
In reality, Sharapova is about five inches taller than Serena, but clearly she had a picture to paint. And it’s not a nice one.
According to Sharapova, in the locker room after her win against Serena in the 2004 final, Serena collapsed into “guttural, heaving sobs.”
“It went on and on. I got out as quickly as I could, but she knew I was there,” she wrote. “People often wonder why I have had so much trouble beating Serena; she’s owned me in the past ten years. My record against her is 2 and 19.
“In analyzing this, people talk about Serena’s strength, her serve and confidence, how her particular game matches up to my particular game, and, sure there is truth to all of that; but, to me, the real answer was there, in this locker room, where I was changing and she was bawling. I think Serena hated me for being the skinny kid who beat her, against all odds, at Wimbledon.”
There is obviously a theme here to Sharapova related to each woman’s physical size. She said similar of Lindsay Davenport in her book, writing, “She was big. I was small,” of Davenport, whom she beat in the semifinals of that 2004 Wimbledon tournament. Davenport and Sharapova are the same height, but Davenport is solid compared to Sharapova’s slim frame; Sharapova was 5-1 in her career against Davenport.
Complicating Sharapova’s legacy even further: her 2016 suspension for doping. She was found to have used meldonium, which went onto the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances on Jan. 1, 2016. Not many women have been suspended by the WTA for doping, and Sharapova would go on to serve a 15-month suspension, cut down from two years. She lost some sponsors, and certainly a lot of respect among her peers on tour. When Sharapova’s suspension was first announced, former tennis champ Jennifer Capriati said Sharapova should be stripped of her 35 career titles.
Sharapova admitted that she had taken meldonium, also known as mildronate, for a decade and that it had been prescribed by a family doctor. The drug is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration but is available in Russia (Sharapova has lived in the U.S. since she was a child but played for Russia during international tournaments); it increases blood flow and therefore increases oxygen to muscle tissue.
Between her return in 2017 and her retirement this week, Sharapova was never close to the player she was pre-suspension and won just one title, a lower-level tournament in China that same year.
The window for athletes to earn, whether on the court or off, is relatively small, and Sharapova can’t be knocked for capitalizing on her appearance to enhance her bank account.
But Sharapova made it clear that she wasn’t on the WTA tour to make friends, and between the cold shoulder she so often gave opponents and the cheater label, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that the tennis world has been relatively quiet at the news of her retirement.
The silence from her peers tells us a lot about how she’ll be remembered.
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