Maria Sharapova: The Unstoppable Victim

Maria Sharapova standing on court with her arm in the air
From wtatennis.com

Returning from a 15-month suspension from tennis for drug offences, Maria Sharapova seeks to rewrite history in her September 2017 memoir, Unstoppable: My Life So Far. Recounting her turbulent life born to a family displaced by the Chernobyl disaster, adversity has flirted with Sharapova across her journey from Siberia to Sochi, Florida, Wimbledon champion at seventeen, world number one, and finally the Court of Arbitration for Sport. In an entertaining, insightful, blunt read, she explains the singular will which has propelled her through every struggle. Yet in the quest to live up to her “unstoppable” billing, Sharapova is all too willing to embellish the truth and assign blame extensively. Any memoir is, by definition, self-centred, as is any sportsperson who wishes to excel, especially in a singles game of tennis. But the by-product of Sharapova’s persistence is a siege mentality, developed during her strained childhood. She now considers all her problems to be somebody else’s fault.

The ability of Maria and her father, Yuri Sharapov, to navigate the early difficulties of her childhood is truly inspiring. Making the decision to estrange themselves in a foreign country with no income or place to stay, and only a prodigal tennis ability to give them exposure, was courageous. But soon, Sharapova’s description of a self-enforced exile goes sour; she becomes a victim. Rich kids are ostracising her at the Bolletieri Academy. Serena Williams develops a personal vendetta. The World Anti-Doping Agency and International Tennis Federation want to make an example of her. Of course, there are countless moments where the Russian’s desire to keep playing and winning against the odds is laudable, from her arrival in Miami as a six-year old speaking no English, to her shoulder surgery in October 2008 which required Sharapova to virtually re-teach herself tennis. In 2016, she continued to train for nine months while tribunals decided whether she should be banned for four years for doping offences, which would have effectively sealed her retirement. Sharapova brings a focus to the court, virtually unmatched point-by-point, that I’ve only seen in Rafael Nadal. But she has gained her determination with the price of stubbornness, and almost the desire to be an outcast.

An innocent if unforgiveable mistake in January 2016 cost Maria Sharapova 15 months of her career and tarnished her professional legacy, yet through her memoir she still attempts to reapportion blame. The ITF decision to ban the drug meldonium is portrayed as a cynical plot to punish Eastern European athletes in the wake of the Russian-focused doping scandal in 2015-16. Sharapova contends that it is an over-the-counter heart medication regularly used in Russia, which tennis authorities believed must be ubiquitous due to performance-enhancing effects. As such, she was the ITF’s scapegoat to make an example of Russian doping. Tenuous or not, however, she flouted a ban when failing to notice on 1st January 2016 that meldonium was added to a banned substances list. She may dispute the terminology, but during the Australian Open in 2016, Maria Sharapova was an inadvertent cheat.

Her retrospective argument, backed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, that the ITF should have more clearly flagged that such a commonly-used substance was now banned, is infantile. Any professional with the utmost standards of personal conduct would at least forward verbose ITF emails to their doctor or trainer, to comb through and look for additions. Clearly, other tennis players using meldonium before 1st January 2016 did. I believe that what Sharapova did was unintentional, but it was a clumsy, negligent oversight. Few non-Russian players have rallied to her defence, but castigations from the likes of Eugenie Bouchard, Caroline Wozniacki, and Andy Murray bolster her story of unfair victimisation. Sharapova cannot claim to be an ITF stooge, or dispute the utility of a meldonium ban after falling foul, but both aid her “unstoppable” refrain.

Sharapova’s inexhaustible determination and self-belief err on the side of spiteful arrogance throughout the book. This may be more offensive to British sensibilities than a naturally more confident American audience, but I would imagine the passages which consider her relationship with Serena Williams make for universal uncomfortable reading. Sharapova makes the ludicrous assumption that their “rivalry” (2-19 in Williams’ favour) began at the age of twelve or thirteen, long before either Williams sister had ever heard of her. On this occasion, they came to practice at the Bolletieri Academy, but Sharapova notes that she was ‘not going to let them see me at their practice…I will never give them that satisfaction.’ As such, she watched from – of all places - a peephole in a recording shed. The next time she saw Serena, at the 2002 Wimbledon Champions Ball, Sharapova was seemingly unable to stand up in respect of Serena Williams’ entry as the Ladies’ Singles Champion. Most contrived is Sharapova’s contention that she has not been able to beat Serena in 18 successive attempts because, after Sharapova saw her cry in the locker room following their 2004 Wimbledon final, Williams vowed never to lose to her again.

Sharapova is positively obsessed by Serena. A mixture of envy, fear, frustration and helplessness across these defeats has warped her perception to the extent that she expects Serena to be equally infatuated. Her description of Williams even conforms to stereotypes of black female bodies: ‘thick arms and thick legs… so intimidating and strong’ and ‘tall, really tall’. That last comment is simply false; Sharapova is 6ft 2, Williams is 5ft 9. Sharapova hasn’t beaten Serena Williams since 2004 because she is not up to the task mentally, but again, she wants to act the victim of a vindictive enemy. Unsurprisingly though, Williams is above such petty squabbles and has her own career to focus on, which is what makes any comments about revenge for Wimbledon 2004 or ‘extra motivation’ baffling.

The former world No. 1 strains to perpetuate her “unstoppable” image in the present day, making a 2017 comeback marred by injuries and variable performances. It’s difficult to believe that she will play ‘Until they take down the nets. Until they burn my rackets. Until they stop me.’ This is a rather stark reversal in attitude from when Sharapova began her memoir in late 2015, considering a farewell season before retirement at her 30th birthday in April 2017. Of course, the suspension revived her passion to compete, but it also allowed Sharapova a respite from niggling injuries exacerbated by playing weekly tournaments. In a career navigated through injury, how consistent can Sharapova be into her thirties? Can she string together enough match wins to gain ranking points, entry to better tournaments, and - her ultimate goal - to win Grand Slams?

Injuries forced her withdrawal from the Italian Open less than a month after her return in April 2017, and prevented her from competing at the French Open or Wimbledon. We finally caught glimpses of the Russian’s best form at the US Open (luckily, she was granted a Wildcard entry) with a gripping first round win over world No. 2 Simona Halep. Still she lost in the fourth round, bringing her win-loss record for the year to an uninspiring 9-4. The former No. 1 is now 103rd in the WTA rankings, and unless she starts winning, that will prevent entry to the best tournaments. Like all great champions, Sharapova will be realistic about the time to bow out gracefully, rather than hobble on stubbornly until it becomes too embarrassing to continue. 2017 is only the start of her return, and we have seen this year the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Sloane Stephens returning to the sport after enforced breaks with fantastic consequences. But I’d imagine that continued injury scares and losses to low-ranked opponents would rattle Sharapova’s “unstoppable” mindset.

Sharapova’s future as a top tennis player is inevitably stoppable, but in her character there is an impressively unrelenting intensity and focus. Not everyone is a fan; she is clearly too haughty and aloof for many players, with whom she has shunned “fake” friendships. The exception to this rule is the Bulgarian world No. 8 Grigor Dimitrov, her much-publicised boyfriend between 2012 and 2015. In the book, Sharapova references this with her customary candour, but also kindness and almost despondence at the fact that her career had to take precedence over her relationship. Her personality will always polarise the opinion of fans and the media, particularly with the refusal to accept she is a drug “cheat”. Regrettably, this will be her enduring image with manifold tennis fans forever feeling that Sharapova has shamed a “clean” sport. Nothing in a 290-page memoir can remedy that.

I respect and often marvel at what Sharapova has done in the face of adversity, and I take her word that in a twelve-year professional career before her 2016 suspension, no wrongdoing was committed. In that sense, her attempts at self-absolution have done their job. But I still cannot warm to her. It’s tedious to see the highest-paid female athlete in the world find victim status in almost every affront. How can the reader see the wood from the trees? Of course, Sharapova wouldn’t like me either. At 5 foot 9 inches, I’d probably remind her of Serena Williams.