Sharapova: Poster Child for Russia
Maria Sharapova, the poster child (sometimes literally) for today's Russia, appears to have jumped the rails even as her country does the same. While Vladimir Putin is provoking a new cold war over Snowden and Syria, Sharapova is doing her best to match him stride for stride on and off the tennis court.
There seems to be something about some Eastern European players who, like Sharapova, leave their countries for greener pastures, something that lingers under the surface and is disturbingly malevolent. Call it guilt complex, inferiority complex, or what have you, it makes for some dramatic events.
In over four decades of operation, the Women's Tennis Association has only imposed the match penalty, default for violation of the Code of Conduct, twice. Both times it was imposed on Eastern European defectors.
Irina Spîrlea, who defected from Romania to Italy, received the match penalty in 1996 in Palermo, Italy for cursing out the umpire in Italian. And Anastasia Rodionova, who defected from Russia to Australia, received the match penalty in 2007 in Cincinnati, Ohio, for hitting a ball at a group of fans who were cheering for her opponent.
Neither cleaned up her act following the default.
The very next year after her default, Spîrlea changed her path to intentionally bump into Venus Williams on a changeover during their semifinal match at the U.S. Open, giving rise to charges of racism in the Williams camp after Spîrlea smiled triumphantly at her box following the bump. Spîrlea then cursed out Williams, received a $5,000 fine, and went on to lose the match. Williams gained her first grand slam final.
And three years after her default, Rodionova was guilty of such gamesmanship and poor sportsmanship that fellow Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova refused to shake her hand at the end of their second-round match at Wimbledon. Two years after that, Rodionova herself refused to shake the umpire's hand at the conclusion of her first-round defeat by a French player. She claimed the umpire had favored the local player.
Which brings us to Sharapova, who like Rodionova left Russia for the elite tennis training to be found in the USA, where she ultimately learned her game and decided to remain. Not satisfied with being one of the highest-paid female athletes in the world, Sharapova has started a candy business called "Sugarpova" which has her hawking artificially flavored and colored, super-expensive sticky kid's stuff in hopes of scoring a big payday. Items such as pastel-hued tennis-ball-shaped gumballs cost more than $1 per ounce. As for the notion that Sharapova should be a role model encouraging the world's youth to eat healthy? Under the cotton-candy-colored bus. As for the notion that Sharapova's game needs major work and she has no time for playing with candy? Likewise.
Apparently, Sharapova was concerned that because of the high price point of her wares she might not be able to sustain interest in the venture, into which she has plunked half a million dollars of her own money. Therefore she hit upon the crazed scheme of changing her name for the duration of the U.S. Open, now underway in New York, from Sharapova to Sugarpova, forcing the commentators and press to tout her candy every time they mentioned her name.
Things went bad rather quickly after that. Cooler heads prevailed upon Sharapova to realize the incredible crassness of her gambit, and the next thing you knew Sharapova had an "injury" which forced her to withdraw from the year's final grand slam altogether. So now she won't be touting her sweets even with her real name.
The Sugarpova fiasco wasn't Sharapova's only instance of disturbingly erratic behavior this year. After being summarily booted out of Wimbledon in the second round in easy straight sets by an unseeded Portuguese opponent, Sharapova fired her coach and hired court legend Jimmy Connors to replace him. But she allowed Connors to coach her for only one competitive match before firing him after losing, again in the second round (following a first-round bye), at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. Her treatment of Connors, one of the great figures in the history of sport, was barbarism unbound.
Wimbledon followed on the heels of a performance at Roland Garros in Paris which can be seen as a microcosm of Sharapova's entire career, namely extended periods of horrific play punctuated by breathtaking instances of dumb luck.
In her quarterfinals match at the French Open this year, Sharapova lost every game of the first set and over the course of the match struck 45 unforced errors and saw her serve broken four times. Yet she still prevailed because her hapless opponent played even worse. The same thing continued in the semifinals, where she served eleven double faults and saw her serve broken five times. She made a stunning 39 unforced errors, but won again. She reached the finals of a grand slam tournament despite making eighty-four unforced errors in the two prior matches! But then her luck ran out against World #1 Serena Williams, a player she has not defeated in more than a decade, and she was decisively crushed.
Sharapova has won four grand slam titles, completing a career grand slam, but in those four matches she was forced to play only one competitive set. In all five of the remaining sets her opponents simply and inexplicably collapsed, including Williams and Justine Henin, two of the greatest ever to play. Williams and Sharapova have played 29 sets since 2004, the year Sharapova defeated Williams at Wimbledon, and Sharapova has won only two of them, losing every single one of the eleven matches. This included four ejections from grand slam events and one ejection from the Olympics. In nine of those sets, Sharapova took just one game or less from Williams. Sharapova is five years Williams' junior and is five inches taller, both significant advantages in the modern game.
Sharapova's erratic adventures have been going on for some time now. She began dating NBA star Sasha Vujacic in 2009 and the couple announced their engagement in late 2010. But mysteriously, no marriage came to pass, and finally in the summary of 2012 came the bizarre announcement that they were in Splitsville. Then Sharapova began dating Bulgarian tennis pro Grigor Dimitrov, a rumored former beau of Williams, and things got really ugly. Williams lashed out at Sharapova for publicly gushing over her new boo, essentially throwing him in Williams' face. Williams said Dimitrov had a "black heart," and Sharapova fired back about Williams dating a married man.
It's inexplicable why Sharapova chooses to live in the USA while clinging to her Russian citizenship and occasionally playing for the Russian national team. The values of the place she chooses to live in are diametrically opposed to those of her native land, yet she does not have a word to say about the vicious crackdown now underway as Vladimir Putin seeks a new cold war and a neo-Soviet state. Sharapova could be a Russian or an American, but she chooses to be neither.
Sharapova is, in short, her country in microcosm. On the surface she appears impressive, but if you look beneath the surface you find some very unpleasant surprises and a great deal of sleight of hand. She is entirely self-absorbed, caring little about universal values, and she shows no sign of wanting to improve. When Russia gets lucky and the price of oil spikes, it seems to be doing well, just as does Sharapova when she catches an opponent on a bad day. At other times, it seems like the end is only moments away.
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