Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Sharapova, the wounded warrior, retires from professional tennis


Maria Sharapova--having sustained the wounds of a chronic shoulder injury, incompetent medical care, and a "scandal" in which facts were easily exchanged for sensationalism and mob rule--announced her retirement from professional tennis today. The 32-year-old five-time major champion and Career Slam holder said to Vanity Fair:

"Looking back now, I realize that tennis has been my mountain. My path has been filled with valleys and detours, but the views from its peak were incredible. After 28 years and five Grand Slam titles, though, I’m ready to scale another mountain—to compete on a different type of terrain."

The Russian star shot to fame in 2004 when, at age 17, she defeated Serena Williams in the Wimbledon final, and went on to defeat her again in the WTA Finals that year. Maria and her father had left Russia for the United States when she was a little girl so that she could fulfill her tennis potential. She didn't know the language or the culture, and she had to live without her mother while her father scrapped a living for them and helped her find coaches and facilities. There is no doubt that this difficult situation helped to toughen her.

And tough she was. Known for her serve (that would falter following a shoulder injury and a botched treatment that very likely led to her continued vulnerability) and her blazing groundstrokes, Sharapova was equally known for her mental toughness and fighting spirit. She was able to pull herself together when things went wrong on the court, and she possessed the kind of steely determination that defines truly elite athletes.

In 2006, Sharapova won the U.S. Open, defeating Justine Henin in the final (and wearing a fabulous “little black dress” that sparkled), and then having the trophy lid fall off and almost hit her in the head during the awards ceremony. Then, in 2008, she won the Australian Open, defeating world number 1 Lindsay Davenport in the second round, and Ana Ivanovic in the final.

In April of 2008, Sharapova tore her right rotator cuff, yet her doctors failed to detect the tear. (How doctors could fail to detect a rotator cuff tear remains a mystery.) She continued playing for three more months, not realizing what the problem was. During this time, of course, her injury became much worsse. To make matters worse, this was the second shoulder injury of her career. She finally went to a doctor who diagnosed her correctly, and she underwent surgery. But her problems continued. Sharapova went to Arizona to do her rehab, but it was unsuccessful, so—after playing some more with an injured shoulder—she had to undergo rehab a second time.

Sharapova was never the same after that. Her serve, once the foundation of her game, turned into a shower of double faults. Even the mentally strong Maria struggled mightily with her toss and with her service motion (something similar happened to her countrywoman, Elena Dementieva, who had a good enough serve until she had to have shoulder surgery). But she forged on—did she ever. In 2011, she returned to the top10, but she still had a problem to solve.

Sharapova’s problem was to find a way to win big with a modified skill set that included better movement and footwork, and she solved it in a way that surprised just about everyone—she solved in on clay, where everything was slowed down somewhat. No one, least of all Maria, ever expected her to win the French Open, but in 2012, she did just that, defeating Sara Errani in the final, and thus becoming only the tenth woman to hold a Career Slam. My post about the final is probably my all-time favorite of the many tennis blog posts I’ve written. The occasion had a kind of magic about it, even more so—in my opinion—than the 2004 Wimbledon victory or the glamorous 2006 U.S. Open achievement.

That year, Sharapova also won a silver medal at the Olympic Games.

In 2013, Sharapova launched Sugarpova, a candy company featuring whimsically designed gummy candies. The company has since expanded to include chocolate confections. Sharapova would go on to win the French Open again in 2014, this time, defeating Simona Halep in what the Russian star described as the toughest major final she had ever played.

The injuries continued, and the shoulder became more vulnerable as the years went on, although Sharapova continued to play at a very high level. Then, in 2016, the five-time major champion announced that she had been suspended by WADA for doping. I’m not going to go into the Meldonium affair here, other than to say that I stand today where I stood when it happened:

Having read the full report and the results of all the not-very-scientific-at-all studies, having consulted medical and pharmaceutical specialists, and having looked at the suspicious timing and heard the atrocious words of Craig Reeedie, my conclusion remains—that Sharapova was in error, but not nearly so much as her accusers and her punishers (not to mention some of her peers and numerous members of the sports media and the public). Both WADA and the ITF were, in my opinion, much more at fault than Sharapova.

And as of this writing, there are still no valid scientific studies that indicate that Meldonium is a performance-enhancing substance.

Sharapova, having had her suspension shortened from 24 months to 15 months by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (who found no significant fault on her part), returned to the tour in 2017 and won her first title in two years in Tianjin. She continued to struggle with injuries, especially those involving her right shoulder.

In 2017, Sharapova’s autobiograpny, Unstoppable: My Life So Far was published. In it, she reveals that she had postponed her retirement because of the ITF ban. The book is personal and entertaining, and reflects a lot of the “edge” that is a highlight of the Russian’s personality.

That edge includes a sharp wit. “Isn’t she back in Poland already?” and “Check her blood pressure” remain my two favorite Sharapova verbal shots.

No review of Sharaapova’s career would be complete without discussing her professional relationship with Serena Williams. Though sometimes called a “rivalry,” it was anything but—Sharapova never defeated Williams again after the 2004 Wimbledon and WTA Finals. The other 19 times they played each other, Williams won. Among those losses to Williams were the 2007 Australian Open final, the 2012 Olympic Games, the 2012 WTA Finals, the 2013 French Open final, and the 2015 Australian Open final.

In addition to her losses to Williams at the above-listed majors, Sharapova also lost the 2011 Wimbledon final to Petra Kvitova, and the 2012 Australian Open final to Victoria Azarenka. She lost the WTA Finals in 2007 to Justine Henin.

Sharapova also had a hard-luck run in Miami, never winning the tournament, but making it to the final five times. The most memorable of those, for me, was the 2012 final. I was on Daniel Island at the time, covering the Family Circle Cup, and several of us headed to the on-site bar to watch the match. I was a fan of Aga Radwanska, and I watched with rapt attention as the tricky Polish player known as The Ninja dismantled Sharapova’s game and defeated her 7-5, 6-4. But nothing I can say about that match could ever come anywhere close to Todd Spiker’s unforgettable take, which you can read here.

Maria Sharapova won 36 singles titles and spent 21 weeks as the world number 1. She played on the Russian Fed Cup team in both 2008 (when Russia won the championship) and 2011, and in the 2011 final, she defeated both Petra Kvitova and Karolina Pliskova, though the Czech Republic went on to win the championship. In 2014, Maria was the first of a succession of torch-bearers at the opening ceremony at the Olympic Games in Sochi.

Sharapova founded the Maria Sharapova Foundation to help children throughout the world achieve their goals, and to fund Chernobyl-related projects.

Like so many elite athletes, Maria Sharapova’s career presents us with some significant “what if?”s. What if she hadn’t sustained a shoulder injury? What if, when she had her second shoulder injury, she hadn’t been under the care of incompetent professionals? What if she hadn’t experienced the ITF ban?

We cannot answer these questions, of course, and even if we could, it would be nothing more than an intellectual exercise. What we do know is how the arc of Sharapova’s long career played out, both on and off the court. Maria brought excitement and a fierce intensity to the tour, and she became an international celebrity, which—in turn—brought attention to the tour and to the sport of tennis. Also, owning a Career Slam, five major singles titles, 36 total singles titles, a Fed Cup championship, and an Olympic silver medal isn’t too shabby, by any standard.

When I saw Sharapova at a press conference in Cincinnati last year, she appeared so world-weary, and I suspected a retirement announcement would come soon. When it did come, today, she said: “Tennis showed me the world—and it showed me what I was made of. It’s how I tested myself and how I measured my growth.”

Maria Sharapova will undoubtedly continue to thrive as an entrepreneur and as an activist in her foundation. I suspect there are also other paths that she’ll take, and I look forward to learning what they are. I’ll miss her fighting spirit, her wit, and her one-of-a-kind persona. People are overly fond of saying that a retirement is the “end of an era,” but in Maria’s case, I think that it truly is the end of an era—and what an era it was.


colt13 said...

Great writeup.

Two thoughts- Her winning Wimbledon at 17 almost felt like Becker in that you were convinced that she would not be a one hit wonder. 2012 French Open felt like the back to the top of the mountain moment.

If done right, Sharapova's post career moves may have more impact than anybody not named BJK.

Todd.Spiker said...

I'm sure you've grown weary of seeing so many of your favorites exit of late -- Flavia, Bartoli, Li, Aga, Francesca, JJ (sort of), Maria... -- and then again having to collect your thoughts once more to give them a proper sendoff, but you always hit on all the things that made each one special in her own right. ;)

I sure hope "Yuri and Yelena" will be okay. :)

Diane said...

colt, yes,I think of Wimbledon as fire, and the 2012 French Open as a manifestation of inner light. And I agree, Maria has the persona and influence to make a huge impact.

Thanks, Todd. It isn’t easy, saying goodbye to some of these players. Maria was different for me because—while I admired her game—it wasn’t one to which I was especially drawn. As the years went on, though, I became more and more drawn to her persona. As a personality, she’s fascinating. And I especially appreciate Sveta’s repeated defenses of her as an actual human being.

jwr said...

I still wonder if anyone has ever dropped three bagels on reigning #1 players at major tournaments before their 21st birthday as Sharapova did to Mauresmo (twice at '06 US Open) and Henin (once at '08 AO)...I always think of that as the measure of what she (and we) lost to that horrific misdiagnosis.

I'm really glad you took the scalpel to the doping nonsense. I was hoping I wouldn't have to!

Excellent summary as always...I posted my much briefer thoughts here if you're interested:

Nondisposable Johnny

Diane said...

I had never before heard the "Daddy didn't buy mine" quote! Love it.

Thanks so much, Johnny. I'd forgotten that she bageled Amelie twice.

I've seen a lot of trash about Maria in the last few days, but the worst, I think, was some dirtbrain on Twitter proclaiming that Petra, in her tribute Tweet, was cleverly trolling Maria. Ignorance rules.

My Racket Sports said...

This news make me sad. She is so young to be retired from tennis. We are going to miss her.

Diane said...

I know--I'm sad, too.

Tennis Racquet for Female said...

I miss here so much.

rahat said...

I miss her a lot
She Is My Crush