London: The many detractors of Maria Sharapova do not, by and large, dislike her because of her meldonium use or her airy disregard for changes to the World Anti-Doping Code.
They are simply turned off by her posturing, by the speed with which she has morphed from Wimbledon’s teenage champion into a disdainful ice maiden whose surfeit of money is matched by her deficit of charm.
“It’s very pleasant to beat Maria,” Alla Kudryavtseva, a fellow Russian, said after a victory in 2008. “I don’t like her outfit. Can I put it this way? It’s a little too much of everything.”
She alienates through her conceited presumption that she can control every facet of her story. Ever since she announced her drugs violation 14 months ago, at a Los Angeles hotel chosen for its drab carpet and in a Black Widow gown designed to symbolise the sackcloth and ashes of contrition, Sharapova has sought to stage-manage the narrative. ‘Maria the martyr’ is a facade scrupulously crafted by Maria the manipulator. In that context, this week’s decision by France’s tennis federation to deny her a wild card for Roland Garros is a refreshing sign that she cannot have it all her own way.
Not that Sharapova will stop trying, mind. Mere hours after her French Open snub, she tweeted that “no words, actions or games will ever stop me achieving my dreams”. She has more brass than the Moscow Philharmonic, dismissing the reasoned objections of a national governing body as “games”.
But doubtless there will be more of this mewling self-justification in her forthcoming memoir, Unstoppable — itself a questionable premise, given that Serena Williams has stopped her on 19 of the 21 times they have played. There are some who argue that Bernard Giudicelli’s refusal to invite Sharapova to Paris is a melodramatic gesture, setting a worrying precedent if the sport’s beefed-up anti-doping programme happens to catch out more leading players. On the contrary, it should be heralded as a seminal moment, one that by its sheer unexpectedness blows apart tennis’s cosy little cartel. It reveals much about the urge in tennis to protect its stars that Giudicelli’s perfectly reasonable stance, in blocking a free path back for dopers — inadvertent or otherwise — is seen by the usual apologists as tantamount to going rogue. Just take this little monologue by Justin Gimelstob on the Tennis Channel this week: “How about forgiveness? How about redemption?
This is a tremendous competitor, she has won the tournament twice. She just wanted the opportunity to play. It would have been nice.” He sounded as if he wanted to cry, or at least reach for the world’s smallest violin. Gimelstob might have started his obsequy by declaring a possible interest. After all, he was in his playing days a client of IMG, the sports and entertainment giant that represents Sharapova.
It was Gimelstob who first suggested to Max Eisenbud, the Jerry Maguire figure who claims to do everything for Sharapova — everything except checking the annual list of prohibited substances, which he blamed, intriguingly, on not taking his usual holiday in the Caribbean — that he become an agent. Gimelstob and Eisenbud were childhood friends, which makes dear Justin about as likely to be impartial on Sharapova’s transgressions as Andy Murray talking about his two Border terriers. It is a small world, tennis, as the Sharapova case has vividly shown.
Soon, Wimbledon will have to rule on her ineligibility for a main-draw wild card, and who do you suppose our great summer tournament is answerable to commercially? Why, IMG, of course. The prophecy once spelt out by rival agency Lagardere, that IMG’s insatiable appetite for acquiring all the best players and events would create conflicts of interest galore, could be about to be fulfilled.
Wimbledon, it is hoped, will choose moral leadership above commercial relationships by telling Sharapova to slum it in the qualifiers at Roehampton. Clearly, the Lawn Tennis Association does not have quite the same luxury, its finer margins ensuring that it will welcome Sharapova to next month’s Aegon Classic in Birmingham as part of a two-year deal. “We have received a two-year commitment from one of the most famous athletes in the world,” Michael Downey, the LTA’s outgoing chief executive, said.
“This wasn’t a decision we took lightly.” Perhaps not, but you can bet that Downey, who has taken the political option rather than what many believe is the right one, found the predicament lightened by the fact that he is heading back to Canada in a few weeks’ time. Sharapova is emblematic of the ‘IMG-isation’ of sport. She is a hugely gifted player but a figure of such cold, corporate calculation that she once suggested changing her name to ‘Sugapova’ to promote her latest sweet range.
Pre-meldonium, this did not seem to be a problem, as her company hawked the sweets from a pop-up stall in Wimbledon Village for £6 (Dh28) a throw. Now, one might legitimately ask why a woman who cited a family history of diabetes as a reason for her meldonium prescriptions is so keen to join the confectionery business. For so long, she has been a protected species, too powerful to take on and too supercilious to second-guess.
Giudicelli, however, has thrown that idea aside. One explanation is that Parisians have never much taken to Sharapova, and another is that France is too traumatised by the memory of what Lance Armstrong did within its borders to give dopers the time of day. And yet Giudicelli has also sent a message to Sharapova that she does not write her own scripts any longer. It is one to which, for a change, she ought to respond not with hubris, but humility.