What’s there to say about Maria Sharapova? A lot, but I’ll start with this: At 17 in 2004, she stunned the tennis world by absolutely annihilating Serena Williams, 6-1, 6-4, to win Wimbledon. Later that year, she beat Williams again at the WTA Championships, though it was a tighter match—4-6, 6-2, 6-4.
With those two victories, we tennis watchers thought, with reason, that the women’s game had a new star. She would go on to win several Slams, we thought. Correct on both counts, as it turned out.
Over the next several years, Sharapova was indeed among the biggest names in women’s tennis, the highest-earning female athlete in the world. And she went on to win four more Grand Slams—two French Opens, one US Open and one Australian Open. She spent several weeks ranked #1 in the world. By any reckoning, this is one of the modern greats of the sport.
Yet for all that success, one fact about Sharapova stands out. In the 13 years since those two victories over Williams, the two have played 18 more times. Sharapova has won precisely zero of those matches. In fact, across all 18 matches, she has won just three sets. She is constantly referred to as one of the toughest competitors in tennis, yet she has racked up a dismal record of failure against Williams.
But in the meantime, Sharapova is in the news because she has been serving a suspension from the sport. This is because she failed a drug test at the Australian Open last year. An original two-year suspension was later reduced on appeal to 15 months. But even that seems to have shrunk, going by the news this week: she resumed playing professionally on Wednesday, beating Roberta Vinci at the Porsche Grand Prix in Stuttgart that gave her a wildcard entry.
There’s enough in Sharapova’s record to raise eyebrows at—her string of losses to Williams, the drug issue, and her earlier-than-expected return to the game. But what’s also worth raising eyebrows about is the general reaction, from her peers, to her suspension and return.
Like the Canadian star Eugenie Bouchard, a self-professed Sharapova admirer as she grew up. Things have changed, though. “She’s a cheater", said Bouchard in an interview. “I don’t think a cheater in any sport should be allowed to play that sport again."
Like Agnieszka Radwanska, a tough and crafty player who has never quite broken through to the very top. Sharapova, she said, should not be given wildcards into tournaments. “This kind of entry into the tournament should be available only for players who have dropped in the ranking due to injury, illness or other random accident… Maria should rebuild her career in a different way, beginning with smaller events."
Like Dominika Cibulkova, winner of last year’s WTA Finals. She has no sympathy for Sharapova because she is “a totally unlikeable person; arrogant, conceited, and cold".
Like Vinci herself, too. Before going on court to lose to Sharapova, she had much the same opinion as Radwanska: no wildcards for her.
What should a tennis-watcher make of all this? Leave aside the harsh language and consider instead the points they are making: There are rules about drug use. Sharapova broke them. There is a prescribed punishment, but it is too lenient and was further reduced for her anyway. Giving her wildcard entries into tournaments is like rewarding her. She should make her way back into the sport like any new entrant to the pro circuit would.
To me, there’s sense in all those arguments. And yet there are also counters to each of them (not necessarily ones I agree with). Like: Sharapova was out of the game for just over a year. That’s a long time for an athlete, especially a veteran who may not have too many years left in the game. Is that punishment enough? Like: Treating her as a new entrant is a reasonable goal, but she remains one of the best-known sportswomen in the world. For that alone, she will be a huge draw wherever she plays, whether in small or major tournaments. Tournaments like marquee names like hers because they bring in the crowds; you can’t reasonably expect them to ignore that opportunity. Therefore, they will be tempted to give her those wildcards.
And then there’s drugs. I know nothing about them, nothing about the one Sharapova used, meldonium. But with drugs, I have always had a hard time deciding where to draw the line.
Presumably the one she took enhances her physical condition and performance in some way. But a headache pill does the same thing, by getting rid of pain. So does an anti-histamine, which you might use if you have a marathon to run and you’re allergic to the pollen on the marked route. So do certain eyedrops, which a shooter or a basketball player might take to improve her vision. All of these are chemicals—drugs, really—and they will certainly improve athletic performance. Why then is it legal to use them, but illegal to use meldonium?
Until someone can satisfactorily explain that to me, I remain sceptical of drug-use rules in sports. (I wrote about all this in a previous column a year ago.)
And I have two final questions: is there a drug that will help Sharapova beat her nemesis for 13 years now, Serena Williams? Is there a drug that makes her more likeable to her peers in tennis?
Now those would qualify as performance-enhancing.
Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His latest book is Final Test: Exit Sachin Tendulkar. His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun
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