Forbes has named her the “world’s highest paid female athlete” for 11 straight years. Since turning pro in 2001, she has earned nearly $300 million. But as wealthy and famous and beautiful as Maria Sharapova is, has she received the esteem and respect of her colleagues?
No. The reason: Last year, she failed a drug test. She had been taking the drug “meldonium” for many years when it was legal. But when it was banned effective Jan. 2016, she still took it.
Positive! That’s the bombshell that shocked the 6-foot-2 Russian. Maria was banned for two years. While away from tennis, she wrote her autobiography and enrolled in Harvard Business School. She was an intern at an ad agency, spending a week with NBA’s Adam Silver and another at Nike HQ. She promoted her candy business, Sugarpova. “It was just a different way my mind was working for a few months,” Maria said, “and I loved that.”
Her 24-month suspension was reduced to 15. And when she returned last April at the Porsche Grand Prix, her counterparts voiced opposition. Eugenie Bouchard complained: “She’s a cheater and I don’t think a cheater in any sport should be allowed to play again.. I think from the WTA it sends the wrong message to young kids: cheat and we’ll welcome you back with open arms.”
Ouch. In reply, Sharapova said she didn’t want to listen to the negative talk and called the women’s locker room “my least favourite place in the world.”
At the US Open in New York, controversy has once again followed the 30-year-old five-time Grand Slam champion. She was given a “wild card.” What’s that? It’s a direct entry into the main draw that’s chosen by the tournament organizers. Ranked a lowly No. 146, Sharapova was given a wild card at the US Open. (At the French Open a few months ago, they denied her that privilege.)
This exemption has troubled some critics. Chris Evert, the 18-major winner, said in response: “I don’t necessarily think that in the grand slams, she should be given a wild card, no.”
Serena Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, told CNN, “If someone gets caught for doping, this person shouldn’t be helped to come back faster to the top of the game.”
You can’t blame the US Open organizers. Ms. Sharapova is the biggest draw among the ladies, especially with Serena pregnant. She’s one of the few who can outrival the popularity of a Roger or Rafa. What has angered other players was how they’ve accorded her extra privileges.
In Sharapova’s first three matches, including last night’s win over Sofia Kenin, she played at the Arthur Ashe (main) Stadium. In contrast, Caroline Wozniacki, ranked No. 5, was relegated to an outside court.
“Putting out a schedule where the number five in the world is playing on court five, fifth match on after 11 p.m., I think that is unacceptable,” said Wozniacki. “When you look at center court, and I understand completely the business side of things, but someone who comes back from a drugs sentence, performance-enhancing drugs, and then all of a sudden gets to play every single match on center court I think that’s a questionable thing to do. It doesn’t set a good example.”
I agree. Life is unfair. But Maria is Maria. I’m sure her WTA players would like to sing the Sound of Music song, How do you solve a problem like Maria?