Pride and Pretence: A tale of tennis and Maria Sharapova

6987482992_dd622cbf4b_o
Maria Sharapova at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in 2012. (Photo by Sandra Peixoto)

Who else is sick of addressing Maria Sharapova’s Meldonium saga? Unfortunately, following the announcement that the Russian will play next year’s Premier tennis event in Stuttgart – a tournament that begins before her 15 month doping ban ends – I feel the urge to comment once again…

*

I am not here to argue that Maria Sharapova took the 2016 banned substance Meldonium with the intention of enhancing her tennis performance. Despite the fact that she upped her intake of the stuff before every big match, kept her use of it hidden from absolutely everyone except her agent, and refrained from discussing with her doctor her continued use of the drug from 2013 onward.

Despite the ITF’s independent tribunal stating: “Her conduct was serious in terms of her moral fault.”

We will never know for sure whether or not Maria Sharapova truly did not know of the changes to WADA’s banned substances list, and whether – while the official rules permitted her to do so for many years – she used Meldonium in the manner of a sporting cheat. Nevertheless, the two things that have angered me above all others since the Russian’s two year ban was reduced have nothing to do with whether or not this was the case.

Let us cut to the chase: Maria Sharapova has been utterly arrogant. She was previously branded as such by fellow players – most notably Dominika Cibulkova, who additionally labelled the 29-year-old as “conceited and cold.” And since her reduced ban, the woman who had played the meek and apologetic offender at the beginning of this ridiculous saga has turned on the haughtiness like never before.

Perhaps some of the self-exultation and bitter words that have radiated from Sharapova are an act. After all, she and her team originally campaigned to have her ban reduced from two years to “time served” – making her eligible to compete again when CAS (the Court of Arbitration for Sport) announced their verdict on the appeal in October. Nevertheless, the Russian failed in this bid, with CAS only knocking nine months off the former world no. 1’s original sentence.

But Sharapova could not afford to appear as though she had lost another battle. The evidence already stacked against her had – and still has – the potential to dirty her once-glittering career, and spoil her image in the history books. Thus, as she had tried so hard to conceal her use of the drug she had taken for ten years, the former prodigy immediately went to great lengths to appear as though she had won a great victory over tennis’ leading governing body. The governing body that had given her the opportunity to enjoy the biggest moments of her life in the first place.

From saying – in the most nauseating of Facebook posts – that she “hoped the ITF had learned their lesson”, to playing the victim in numerous interviews, Sharapova revealed her true colours to the watching world. And yet the Sugarpova founder – who has notably multiplied her social media interactions with fans by a million, in what appears to be another effort to save her face – is not the only person at fault in this drama.

Tennis itself is beginning to come out of this looking like a grovelling, lame sport of no strength or morals. Practically in the immediate aftermath of her reduced sentence, Maria Sharapova was on a tennis court in Las Vegas, in front of a substantial crowd, playing an exhibition event in which tennis legends such as Billie Jean King and John McEnroe welcomed her back with open arms – six months ahead of her return to pro tennis. While it was yet another display of Sharapova’s thick skin and self importance, it was also – as general sports-writer Oliver Brown put it in one of the best tennis-related articles of 2016 – “a nauseating circus that does tennis every discredit.”

It was tennis showing how fickle and easily lead it can be.

It also quickly turned into sponsorships eager to welcome back an eye-catching headline act (need I mention racquet manufacturer HEAD?) And – as proven on Wednesday, when they updated an old article in order to validate Maria’s entrance into the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix main draw – it became the WTA being all-too-eager to lick their former poster girl’s wounds.

They did, after all, quote her as a “Warrior” in a piece back in October.

And on the topic of competitive tennis, it had already become what I forecasted many months ago: Tournaments favouring cash over class. Maria Sharapova, now rankingless, was never going to have to thrash it out on the lowest rungs of the tennis ladder. Because there were always going to be bottom-tier WTA events that would jump at the chance of having one of the world’s most famous sportswomen on their courts.

That Premier-level events are already requesting her presence, too, raises serious questions about the integrity and values in certain areas of this sport.

It’s a mess. A massive, sorry mess, with questions that will never be answered – and people who will pretend they were never asked in the first place.

Often, tennis brings joy. But at other times, tennis looks like a joke.

And this is one of those times.

*

I wonder if the woman who will soon release her autobiography has added a large chapter on banned drugs and unclicked links into her storybook? Feel free to share your thoughts on this miserable saga in the comments section.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s