Perhaps the single most depressing aspect about the coverage this week of the reduction of Maria Sharapova’s ban has been the reminder that for so many people (and indeed, so many media organizations and sponsors) around the world, she remains the face of women’s tennis, despite the fact that in her absence this year so many other brilliant young women players have finally made the breakthrough and become champions, not least the new World No. 1, Angelique Kerber. It is those others who should be dominating peoples’ thoughts about women’s tennis as we reach the end of the season and not Sharapova.
The fact is that throughout Sharapova’s career, the scale of her fame (and fortune) have been out of proportion to her achievements on the court. She is undoubtedly a hugely accomplished player, one of only ten women to have won the Career Grand Slam, but it is also unarguable that for most of her career she has been in the shadow of the great Serena Williams. Indeed, probably the most extraordinary fact about Sharapova’s career is that she has only ever beaten Serena twice, and both times in 2004. She has not beaten Serena once in the dozen years since and her last big match before her ban was imposed was another predictably limp defeat against her at this year’s Australian Open.
In thinking back to 2004, it is instructive to remember what the young Sharapova was like. When she won Wimbledon that year, she was only 17 and was genuinely thrilled to have won her first Major. Having won it, she completely charmed the world by phoning her mother from Centre Court to share her triumph with her. Her mother was not with her that day and it soon emerged that she had not been with Sharapova for much of her life. That was because when Sharapova had first showed great promise as a child in Russia and was encouraged by Martina Navratilova and others to travel to America to train full-time, her family only had enough money for her father to travel with her. When she subsequently won Wimbledon, less than a decade later, it was both a classic “rags to riches” story and an updating of the American dream, in which a young girl from a faraway land (which had once been America’s greatest enemy) fulfilled her ambitions in the land of the free.
That image is in stark contrast to the one that has been presented this week, in which Sharapova and some of her sponsors (notably Head Tennis) have presented the reduction of her drugs ban from two years to 15 months as some kind of triumph for natural justice. On this occasion, the world did not share in or celebrate Sharapova’s supposed “victory.” As many commentators, such as Britain’s Andrew Castle, have said, she really should have showed a lot more humility and at least some consideration of the damage she has done to the sport that has given her so much, not the least materially.
That is especially true given that, in her absence this year, so many other young women players have finally emerged from her shadow, and the even bigger one cast by Serena, to announce themselves on the world stage, and to do so with the kind of unalloyed joy and generosity of spirit that Sharapova herself showed when she won Wimbledon in 2004.
Top of that list, of course, is Angelique Kerber. She, not Sharapova, is the real story of 2016 in women’s tennis. For a long time, she had great potential (she had reached her first Grand Slam semifinal in 2011, losing to the eventual champion Sam Stosur), but she had also appeared appeared unable to make the final breakthrough and reach a Slam final, let alone win it. But that all changed this year, beginning in Australia, where she memorably beat Serena in the final before even more memorably collapsing into tears and paying probably the most heartfelt tribute to a beaten opponent that has ever been heard in the aftermath of a Major final. Some said it belonged on an Oscar-winner’s podium; others saw it as irrefutable evidence of her basic decency and her absolute appreciation of finally achieving success at a relatively late age. Whereas Sharapova had only been 17 when she won her first Major, Kerber was 28.
By her own admission, Kerber initially struggled with her newfound status as a Slam Champion, slipping out of the French Open in the first round. Subsequently, however, she has consistently been the best player on the women’s tour, reaching the final of both Wimbledon and the Olympics in Rio, before finally, triumphantly proving that Melbourne was no one-off by winning the US Open final against Karolína Plíšková and thus securing the World No.1 ranking that had been Serena’s exclusive domain for so long.
And of course, as even this cursory review of Kerber’s 2016 shows, she is not alone in making the breakthrough this year. Garbiñe Muguruza followed her lead, beating Serena in Paris to claim her first Major; Monica Puig confirmed her obvious strength and skill by beating Kerber in the Olympic singles final; and Plíšková’s run to the final at Flushing Meadow, which included victory over Serena in the semifinal, proved that she, too, is now a genuine Grand Slam contender.
It all seems a long time ago since the US Open 2015, when Serena seemed on the brink of a genuine, calendar-year Grand Slam, until she unexpectedly (at the time, almost unbelievably) lost to Roberta Vinci in the semifinal. Since then, despite winning Wimbledon this year and despite still harboring entirely realistic hopes of eventually overtaking Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 singles Grand Slam titles, Serena has faced probably the finest array of opponents that she has ever faced. The fact is that, with Kerber and Muguruza demonstrating the kind of power that seemed to belong solely to Serena for so long, the top of the women’s game has not been so genuinely, authentically competitive for more than a decade. And if Petra Kvitova can finally overcome illness and injury and return to the Wimbledon-winning form of 2011 and 2014, there will be a trio of truly big hitters that can contest the game’s major prizes for the next five years or so.
It is in that context that Sharapova’s antics this week, and the subsequent wall-to-wall coverage of them around the world, are so dispiriting. If she can belatedly remember what it was that made the whole world love her so much in 2004 and show some of the desperately needed humility that so many people have called for this week, she has a chance of recapturing her former place in people’s affections. Until then, she and her many obsequious admirers and erstwhile defenders would do well to remember that she is no longer the supposed “queen of tennis.” That title now belongs to Kerber, and there are plenty of other younger and more powerful opponents also vying for it.