My sadness, though modest, came as a surprise when I learned last week that Maria Sharapova was retiring from tennis. My reaction surprised me because I never much liked Sharapova as a player or a personality.
I suppose it’s kind of foolish the way we root for some sports personalities and against others based on limited knowledge. We know them mostly for the way they throw or catch or make contact with spheres of varying sizes and compositions. And the grace with which they treat victory and defeat and fans and referees.
But that’s our prerogative because sports is no less a form of entertainment than the arts and those we’ve formed opinions about tend to be well-compensated. Being the objects of adulation or criticism the same way movie or TV stars are goes with the territory.
If you’ve interviewed the sports figure in question, as I had the opportunity to do Sharapova, your opinion may be slightly more solidly sourced than simply observing them on a screen or across a stadium filled with thousands of people.
Perhaps not much, though it’s always impressed me how much more you can learn about a person -- politicians and celebrities are no different -- just by being in their presence. We’re social animals and the amount of information we can glean from one’s demeanor, body language and other cues, possibly subliminal, is impressive.
I recall, in particular, attending a press conference Jimmy Carter gave in 1976 when he was competing in the Maryland presidential primary. He’d come out of nowhere to become the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. In a scenario not dissimilar from the one we’re facing in this election cycle with Bernie Sanders other candidates were trying to block his momentum before it was too late.
Some activist stood up at the press conference and started criticizing Carter and his positions. His trademark smile never faded but you could see the muscle in his cheek starting to twitch. It created an indelible impression of the candidate’s discipline and fierce determination. It was no fluke that this obscure governor and peanut farmer had become the frontrunner for the nomination.
When I was offered the opportunity to interview Maria Sharapova for the Wall Street Journal a few days before the start of the 2013 U.S. Open – the highest paid female athlete in the world for many years she was eager to publicize Sugarpova, her candy company -- I was interested about interviewing her for one somewhat snarky reason. I wanted to know how it felt that as well as you played you were going to lose to Serena Williams if she was on her game?
I ended up getting an amusing story because Sharapova withdrew from the tournament eight minutes after our interview ended, claiming bursitis in her right shoulder even though she’d told me she was feeling good and eager to compete in front of the New York crowd. I swore my questions about Serena hadn’t given her cold feet. She’d gamely answered my question regarding her chances against the greatest of all time. “If you keep giving yourself opportunities that’s better than having no chances at all,” she said.
If I felt sadness at the news of her retirement it was probably because she’d always been a ferocious, intelligent competitor; personally, I find it hard to believe that she was unaware that a banned substance that got her suspended from tennis in 2016 for fifteen months was illegal.
When she returned to the game she never managed to achieve her previous greatness – world #1 for a total of 21 weeks and winner of all four grand slams. In a lengthy profile in the New York Times last week the publication’s tennis beat reporter Christopher Clarey bravely asked her whether forsaking meldonium, the drug that get her banned from the sport, effected her results.
Clarey writes: “’Zero,” she said grimly. “My shoulder has been an issue since I was 21.’”
The part of that sentence I found most interesting was the writer’s choice of the word grimly. My hunch was that Sharapova wasn’t thrilled with the question, nor the suggestion that a banned substance may have contributed to her success.
I may have been imaging it but when I interviewed her I thought she frowned at my junior beer belly and I’ve never heard anyone describe her as warm and fuzzy. When she was suspended few if any of her fellow players came to her defense. John McEnroe found it hard to believe her and Chris Evert noted that she’d always isolated herself from the rest of the tennis world.
But she was a perfectionist and a hard worker. I asked her – a dumb question I’ll confess – what it feels like to play tennis in front of 20,000 people. She said that what you don’t see is all the hours and practice that took to get to that point. By the time you do you feel you belong there.
So I’ll miss Maria Sharapova. Even if it was more fun to root against her than for her. Just because you root against someone doesn’t mean you respect his or her talent any less. And maybe even a little more.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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