Maria Sharapova goes quietly into retirement – but it will not be the last we hear of her

February 27, 2020
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    Maria Sharapova

    Maria Sharapova won the last of her five Grand Slam titles at the 2014 French Open

    A farewell tour – with the chance to perform one final time in Paris, London and New York – would not have been the Maria Sharapova way.

    No longer competitive, and with a shoulder not fit for purpose, she would have hated making up the numbers at a benefit gig.

    And so the end came in a well crafted essay published in Vogue and Vanity Fair – which very much is the Sharapova way.

    The Russian leaves as one of only 10 women to have won each of the sport’s four Grand Slam titles, and as a former world number one who made a huge impact on both sport and the celebrity world.

    Some of those achievements have been tarnished by the positive test she returned for meldonium. Even if her physical problems were escalating, she was just not the same player after her return.

    Her road to winning Wimbledon at the age of 17 in 2004 had many twists and turns. Conceived 40 miles from Chernobyl in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster, Sharapova was born in Siberia after her grandmother persuaded her parents it would be safer to leave.

    The family then moved on to the Black Sea resort of Sochi, before heading to Florida when Sharapova was just six to try to carve out a professional tennis career. Mum stayed in Russia, and the family was not reunited for the best part of two years.

    Sharapova had signed with Nike and IMG by the age of 11, and was a Wimbledon champion just six years later. She won three of her Grand Slams by the age of 21, and even though two French Open titles were to follow – arguably her greatest achievement on a surface on which she once said she felt like a “cow on ice” – her shoulder was becoming an increasing hindrance.

    And then came the positive test for meldonium – a heart disease drug – at the 2016 Australian Open. In the evidence she presented at her tribunal, Sharapova said the drug was prescribed in 2005 by a doctor in Moscow to treat a mineral metabolism disorder, which had left her prone to colds and tonsil infections.

    Archive: ‘I admitted my mistake – now I’m back’

    It had been legal to take meldonium until 1 January that year. Sharapova argued the initial two-year ban imposed was “unfairly harsh” as it was purely an administrative error. She appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (Cas), and her time in exile was reduced to 15 months.

    Sharapova’s use of meldonium was cloaked in secrecy. Only her father and her agent knew she was taking it until she informed the Russian team doctor the year before her positive test. And although Sharapova tended to declare the use of other medicine and vitamins on her doping control forms, mentions of meldonium were strangely absent.

    The original tribunal concluded her use of meldonium “on match days, and when undertaking intensive training, is only consistent with an intention to boost her energy levels”. Cas saw it differently – concluding it would be wrong to call her an “intentional doper”.

    Maria Sharapova

    You had to admire her bloody mindedness, and her extreme desire to win.

    BBC Tennis correspondent Russell Fuller on Maria Sharapova

    Either way, a significant PR operation was launched to salvage her reputation. Blame was cast elsewhere; interviews carefully stage-managed. Humility was almost totally lacking, and Sharapova leaves the sport with many questions still unanswered.

    She will not miss her peers, and they will not miss her. There were some notable exceptions, but the sparse number of social media tributes that greeted her retirement was striking.

    Only Sharapova will know if that rankles even someone who wrote in an autobiography that she has “no interest in making friends on my battlefield”.

    You had to admire her bloody mindedness, and her extreme desire to win. And, at times, it was hard not to enjoy her undiplomatic language and withering responses.

    When quizzed about her high-pitched grunting being a distraction to other players, she once replied: “No-one important enough has told me to change.”

    And when told Agnieszka Radwanska had expressed her displeasure (shortly after exiting the Australian Open), Sharapova replied with a cutting: “Isn’t she already back in Poland?”

    The 32-year-old says she is now ready to compete on a different type of terrain.

    Sponsors flocked to her for the majority of her career, with business magazine Forbes estimating she was the highest earning female athlete 11 years in a row.

    You sense she has a shrewd business brain, although her “premium candy” line Sugarpova – perhaps a dubious product for an athlete to promote – may need a serious rebrand if it is ever to prosper in a more health-conscious world.

    Sharapova may be going quietly into retirement, but it certainly will not be the last we hear of her.


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