Maria Sharapova's drugs ban left her brand in trouble

Maria Sharapova’s retirement deprives tennis of a major star name… but the drugs ban and underwhelming return mean her legacy is somewhat tainted

  • Maria Sharapova announced her retirement from tennis on Wednesday 
  • Her drugs ban and absence from the court left her brand at risk of collapse
  • Sharapova has gone on to launch a business empire across various industries 
  • Tennis has lost a star name but others will walk away with their heads held higher

Over the last four years Maria Sharapova has been fighting for her brand and her legacy, and now that battle is over.

Vanity Fair and Vogue were her vehicles of choice on Wednesday, when she announced that she was retiring from tennis after a career that brought with it triumph over early adversity, mountainous earnings and disgrace.

As her apparently self-penned, valedictory piece meandered through the ‘valleys and detours’ of her journey there was no mention of the 15-month doping suspension. That was to effectively end her time as a player of great distinction, among the finest of her era.

Maria Sharapova has battled to save her legacy after her drug’s ban and underwhelming return

Sharapova announced her retirement from tennis at the age of 32 on Wednesday afternoon

It always appeared to be the case that this second phase of her career was about trying to preserve and burnish the memories of the first, not to mention the enormous riches which accompanied it.

The latter has come to an end, and she bows out with an aching shoulder and a ranking of 373, mixed among the wannabes, has-beens and never-weres of women’s tennis.

Sharapova, 32, made nearly $40million in prize money, and many multiples of that from the corporations that once flocked to be associated with her combination of talent, beauty and titles.

Aged 17, she achieved worldwide fame in 2004 by defeating Serena Williams to win the Wimbledon title, beginning what was erroneously, in pure tennis terms, often described as a rivalry.

Defeating Serena Williams in the 2004 Wimbledon final launched the pair’s heated rivalry

She was only to beat her once more while losing 20 times to the American. The two have cordially loathed each other, and Sharapova has put it down to this defeat.

In her autobiography she referred to the ‘guttural sobs’ she heard in the locker room from her vanquished opponent that day. ‘I think Serena hated me for being the skinny kid who beat her, against all odds, at Wimbledon,’ she concluded.

It had already been a remarkable journey for the Russian. She was taken, alone, by her father as a young child to Florida after showing early promise at striking tennis balls.

Sharapova was to become world No 1 and win four more Grand Slams to complete a collection of titles at all the Majors. Surprisingly, and most impressively, two of these came at the French Open, where she showed she had overcome an aversion to the movement required on clay.

She could hit from the baseline with intimidating power and an ear-splitting shriek, backed up by sheer tenacity.

‘Even if my opponent was physically stronger, more confident – even just plain better – I could, and did, persevere,’ she wrote on Wednesday.

Sharapova speaks out at a press conference after testing positive for meldonium in 2016 

That much was inarguable. Less so were her protestations of innocence when she failed a doping test after losing to Williams in the quarter-finals of the 2016 Australian Open, which she announced at a press conference almost exactly four years ago.

Sharapova insisted that she had been taking large quantities of Meldonium for ten years to combat various health issues. She had not declared it on various forms recording medication use.

She was unaware that late in 2015 the authorities had declared it illegal, having connected its performance-enhancing qualities with the large number of athletes from different sports who had also been consuming it.

One of the conditions she cited was a family history of diabetes. That made it look all the more distasteful that she had been peddling an unhealthy sugar product through the ‘Sugarpova’ brand of sweets she developed.

She ended up serving a suspension, during which she strove to give the impression that everything was carrying on as usual. There were sponsor appearances, and even an invitation to play a fundraising exhibition in Las Vegas with the likes of John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova.

Focus in life after tennis will no doubt be on her successful confectionery company, Sugarpova

A clumsy PR campaign continued in the build-up to her return in April 2017 at Stuttgart, with the ban not expiring until after the tournament (backed by one of her main sponsors) actually began. Patsy interviews were lined up with sympathetic media, while those who did not tow the party line were excommunicated.

The restart was, initially, promising enough, but the record will show that she was not the same player without Meldonium. The game evolves and she found that not only was her body increasingly unco-operative, but her formerly exceptional power was more than matched by an increasing number of players.

She was not to breach the top twenty again, nor progress beyond the fourth round at a Grand Slam. The brand was not being resuscitated.

Brands fascinate Sharapova, who will now likely channel her drive into the world of business and other interests. Capable of exuding charm and possessing a quick wit, she could not be accused of lacking a hinterland.

She is also in a long-term relationship with an Englishman, old Etonian Alexander Gilkes, who works in the art world.

Her retirement deprives tennis of a major star name, one of several likely to depart the scene in the next two years. Others will, however, be able to leave with their heads held higher.

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