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'That's one of the problems - Maria Sharapova made her legacy as the highest-paid female athlete'

On the latest edition of Behind the Lines, Caitlin Thompson assess the legacy left by Maria Sharapova.

Maria Sharapova.
Maria Sharapova.
Image: AAP/PA Images

MARIA SHARAPVOA HAS retired from tennis and is now heading from clay and grass to the court of public opinion, and the judgement passed on all the players who quit before her.

What’s her place in tennis history?

We got into that very question on this week’s episode of Behind the Lines with Caitlin Thompson, co-founder and publisher of Racquet magazine. 

(Each episode of Behind the Lines features a lengthy interview with a sportswriter about their career and their favourite pieces of writing, and to gain access to a 46-episode back catalogue, head over to members.the42.ie.

Superficially, Sharapova was incredibly successful, winning all four Grand Slam singles’ titles, adding another at Roland-Garros for good measure. Many see these successes tainted by her subsequent doping ban, having tested positive for Meldonium.

These debates about legacy are complex and nuanced and ask for a fairly detailed interrogation of the subject’s career, but it might be slightly different with Sharapova.

 

Should we even judge her by the metrics of most of the greats? Because at times it felt like the point of her career was superficiality; that she was less an elite athlete than she was a brand. 

“I think that’s one of the problems right?”, says Caitlin. “I think the fact that Maria Sharapova made her legacy as the highest paid female athlete for a number of years.

  • To get access to the archive of almost 50 BTL episodes – featuring Wright Thompson, David Walsh, Diane K Shah, Michael Foley and many more — join The42 here

“I can’t stress this enough, she was the highest paid female athlete in any sport for most of the years she competed despite the fact that she had a losing record against Serena Williams. There are far more decorated players, but she was seen as this perfect branding partner.” 

When Sharapova was banned for doping in 2016, Caitlin commissioned a profile on her for Racquet, written by Sarah Nicole Prickett. The piece teased out just what it was like to grow up as a telegenic, gifted athlete with money and endorsement deals the ultimate victory, rather than a consequence of conventional sporting victory.

The ultimate picture that emerges of Sharapova from the is of a girl created to be famous, like a child film star, and whose worth was ultimately measured by what she could sell, rather than what she could win. 

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Even at the moment of her drugs ban, her lowest professional moment, it’s pointed out in the magazine piece that she could even successfully advertise Meldonium, a product nobody had heard of before. 

And in connection with most major brands, Sharapova shared an extreme political equivocation. 

On the subject of Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay laws in her native Russia, she told the New York Times in 2013 that “time will address this issue,” noting both her pride in being Russian and her possession of gay and lesbian friends. A year later, with the Olympics in Sochi and with time having not yet addressed the issue, she told reporters she had said “everything I wanted to say about it.”

Sharapova followed celebrity’s rules and she made herself extravagantly rich as a consequence, but Caitlin and the profile she commissioned four years ago raises questions as to how much of a choice she had in the first place. 

“You hear the tension. And in her case, the tension is not between what political viewpoint do I espouse, but the attend the the tension is, ‘Who can I be? Who am I allowed to be? Because that has been my entire existence. My 16th birthday was sponsored by Motorola.’  

“How many authentic moments has this woman had in her life? Even winning, how measured or restrained was that because she knew she had to put it into the context of what product was going to be sold?

“I think ultimately, her story, or at least the way that I see it, and why I think this piece is so successful, is because I I hope her life is not a tragedy, but I suspect it is.

“And Sarah Nicole Prickett with this piece has done, I think, a beautiful job of making the case that if anything, we should be a little more maybe sympathetic, or maybe try to look for the humanity in there that we haven’t allowed this person to have, because she was so good at doing this very superficial thing, which is selling products. Chief among them herself.” 

You can listen to the full interview by subscribing at members.the42.ie. 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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