Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 27, 2020

Not Needing A Farewell Tour, Sharapova Exits

The ending was uncharacteristically quiet, for even fans who barely pay attention to tennis beyond the Grand Slam events know that Maria Sharapova makes noise on the court.  They may not be able to count her five wins in the sport’s most prestigious tournaments, but they can imitate the piercing shrieks that have always accompanied Sharapova’s groundstrokes.  These days grunts and shrieks and assorted other noises are heard routinely, both men and women players showing the effort that goes into each shot by loudly exhaling as they strike the ball with their racket. But when Sharapova turned pro on her 14th birthday in 2001 the practice was isolated, especially in the women’s game. Monica Seles, then at the tail end of her career, was the first notable female to join the likes of Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi, but Seles at her loudest was no match for the decibel level attained by Sharapova.

The noise was unnerving to some opponents and irritating to more than a few fans, but from the start Sharapova was intent on competing and winning rather than observing all her game’s niceties and pleasing the crowds. She had been just six years old when her father brought her from the crumbling carcass of the Soviet Union to live and train in America. Separated from her mother for more than two years by immigration issues, Sharapova as a child showed focus and drive far beyond her years at the famed IMG Academy in Florida. Within two years of her professional debut, still barely old enough to drive, she started winning tournaments and climbed into the top fifty of the women’s rankings. Then in 2004, Sharapova stunned top seed and defending champion Serena Williams to claim the title at Wimbledon, at 17 the third youngest woman to do so.

The following year she climbed to number one in the world, and while it took her some time – she readily admitted that she disliked clay, once saying that she felt like a “cow on ice” when playing on the French Open’s surface, she eventually completed the career Grand Slam with a victory at Roland Garros in 2012. In between were wins at Flushing Meadows in 2006 and the Australian Open in 2008. Then, as if to remind fans of the game as well as herself that like all sports, tennis is never entirely predictable, in 2014 Sharapova added a fifth Grand Slam at, of all places, the French and its clay. She remains the most recent woman player to put wins at Wimbledon and the Australian, French and U.S. Opens on her career resume.

Still she was not the dominant player of her time. The era will always belong to Serena Williams, whose twenty-three Grand Slam singles titles and seventy-three victories in WTA events dwarf Sharapova’s five and thirty-six. But few athletes in any sport have done a better job of parlaying their ability into lucrative success away from their chosen game. Her willowy 6’ 2” frame and flowing blonde hair certainly didn’t hurt, but financial success also required shrewd choices among the many sponsors who clamored to tie themselves to her name and her looks. For eleven straight years Sharapova was the top earning female athlete in the world, with big endorsement deals from Nike and Evian and scores of lesser contracts with everything from high end products like Land Rover and Tiffany to everyday consumables such as Gatorade and Tropicana. As recently as 2015 her annual earnings eclipsed $30 million.

Not long after Sharapova was suspended for using meldonium, a drug that had recently been banned by the WTA. A popular prescription in Russia for heart patients, Sharapova took it to combat a magnesium deficiency and a family history of diabetes. By her own admission she failed to monitor the list of newly banned substances, a responsibility that was ultimately hers alone. The initial two-year ban was eventually reduced to fifteen months when an appeals panel determined that she was “not an intentional doper.”

But the time away meant that Sharapova was on the wrong side of thirty, for an athlete anyway, by the time she could again compete. Combined with the cumulative effects of various nagging injuries, the most serious of which was a persistent shoulder problem that surgery in 2008 failed to correct, the Sharapova of the last couple years showed the familiar gritty determination but with nothing like her old results. She made it to the quarterfinals of the French Open in 2018 but lost in the first round at four of her next six Grand Slam appearances, including the last three. At Melbourne in January she was dispatched 6-3, 6-4 by Donna Vekic, and sounded like a player facing the end at her post-match press conference. “I just don’t know,” Sharapova responded to a question about her plans, “I haven’t thought of my schedule moving forward from here yet.”

Now she has, and reached the only sensible conclusion, setting aside the almost constant pain that came with swinging and at times even gripping a racket. Sharapova announced her retirement in a Vanity Fair article, writing in part “I’m new to this, so please forgive me. Tennis – I’m saying goodbye. But as I embark on my next chapter, I want anyone who dreams of excelling in anything to know that doubt and judgement are inevitable. You will fail hundreds of times and the world will watch you. Accept it. Trust yourself. I promise you that you will prevail.” The quiet of the ending may have seemed strange, but for fans of Maria Sharapova the determination to exit on her own terms was exactly what they had come to expect.

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