Maria Sharapova, one of tennis’ greatest fighters, finally threw in the towel on Wednesday. But framing her career is no straightforward task.
A five-time Grand Slam champion, a former world No. 1, a Wimbledon champion at the age of 17 and one of just 10 women to complete the career Grand Slam – Sharapova leaves tennis with a stellar record on paper. There’s little doubt she will be admitted to the Hall of Fame.
That said, there’s a sense of ‘what if’ about her playing days. Injuries certainly took their toll, while co-existing alongside bitter rival Serena Williams – who was rarely more focused than when she faced the Russian, winning their last 19 meetings – will keep her name nowhere near the debate of the greatest player of all time, even if she will be remembered as one of the most ferocious competitors.
Her career, in many ways, is perhaps better defined off the court.
Sharapova, 32, was the highest-earning female athlete for 11 straight years. A pioneer for women in a shamefully uneven sports-earning playing field. In 2004, the year she won her first Grand Slam title, there were no women among the top-50 highest-paid athletes in the world. By 2007, a 20-year-old Sharapova was 25th on the list.
In women’s tennis, only Serena Williams can match Sharapova’s global pull. She boasts more than 27million followers across Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Williams – who has won 18 more Grand Slam titles – is only slightly in front at around the 29million mark.
She is the first of a cluster of tennis superstars in a golden generation – a group that includes Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray – to officially retire. By her own admission, it was surprising she continued her career into her 30s.
Maria Sharapova career
Grand Slam titles: 5
Tour-level titles: 36
Australian Open: Winner (2008)
French Open: Winner (2012, 2014)
Wimbledon: Winner (2004)
US Open: Winner (2006)
Of course, the biggest factor in her extending her career beyond the initially planned timeframe was her 15-month drugs ban.
After testing positive for meldonium at the 2016 Australian Open, Sharapova felt she had a point to prove. To show her success was not built upon a now banned substance designed for heart conditions, which improves blood flow and allows athletes to recover quicker. Unfortunately for her, whether that was or wasn’t the case, her body simply wouldn’t allow her to challenge at the top level.
Plagued by shoulder and forearm issues, she would win only one of her 36 titles following her return and would not go beyond the quarter-finals of a major.
In truth, ranked world No. 373, she leaves with a whimper. Her first-round defeat at this year’s Australian Open was the third straight major where she failed to win a match.
Her failure to directly address perfectly legitimate questions concerning how she had replaced her use of meldonium – which was, of course, a legal substance for the majority of her career – only served as a stick to beat her with for those who queried its use. In an interview with the New York Times published after she announced her retirement, she insists meldonium had ‘zero’ impact on her results.
While she may never win a popularity contest among those in the sport, there is a universal respect for her fighting spirit. A huge boxing fan, her ability to dig deep and fight as if her life depended on it will no doubt have inspired many young athletes around the globe.
It’s fitting, then, that her final Grand Slam was won by a player, Sofia Kenin, who grew up idolising Sharapova.
Kenin, who beat Muguruza in the 2020 Australian Open final, was inspired to pursue a career in tennis when watching Sharapova win Wimbledon some 16 years ago and credits her own ‘feisty’ style to following in the Russian’s footsteps.
Sharapova offered advice to those with similar dreams in her retirement announcement in Vogue.
She wrote: ‘I want anyone who dreams of excelling in anything to know that doubt and judgment are inevitable: You will fail hundreds of times, and the world will watch you. Accept it. Trust yourself. I promise that you will prevail.’
Ultimately, Sharapova’s departure will split opinion. Some will define her by her notable achievements, others will consider them tainted by her failed drugs test.
One thing is clear, the tennis world will be a quieter realm without her. Love her or loathe her, she is certainly unforgettable.
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