February 26, 2020

Goodbye, Maria

It may not have been the most surprising of headlines to cross this morning, but the news of Maria Sharapova's retirement from tennis nonetheless hit hard across the sports world.

The five time Grand Slam champion and former world #1 took to Vanity Fair to announce the news, penning an essay that began: "How do you leave behind the only life you’ve ever known? How do you walk away from the courts you’ve trained on since you were a little girl, the game that you love—one which brought you untold tears and unspeakable joys—a sport where you found a family, along with fans who rallied behind you for more than 28 years? I’m new to this, so please forgive me. Tennis -- I’m saying goodbye."

Her departure from the professional game evokes mixed feelings for many. The Russian stormed on the scene in 2004 when, at 17 she stunned Serena Williams to capture the Wimbledon title. She climbed to the top spot in the rankings a year later and picked up Majors two and three in 2006 and 2008 respectively. And when she completed the career Grand Slam in 2012 with the unlikeliest of victories in Paris -- and, against all odds, repeated there of all places -- she cemented her place in history.

Still, there was something about Maria's years in the spotlight that didn't always sit well. Yes, she picked up 36 titles through her professional career and spent 441 weeks in the top ten over nearly two decades. But competing in an era so dominated by the Williams sisters and even veterans like Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin, she just didn't seem to be in the same league. She, by far, earned more money from sponsorships and business ventures than she did on the court. And while we'd always get so excited for a rematch between her and Serena, truth was she only won two of their 22 matches, none since 2004, and just a handful of sets in those meetings.

There were injuries too, of course -- a lot of them. Shoulder surgery in 2008 took her out of the game for several months, and she's been in and out of physical therapy throughout her career. In describing her U.S. Open first round loss last year -- which she, surprise, lost to Williams -- she said, "Just stepping onto the court that day felt like a final victory, when of course it should have been merely the first step toward victory. I share this not to garner pity, but to paint my new reality: My body had become a distraction."

And then, of course, there's that thing looming in the background.

It's the one topic Sharapova didn't address in her VF piece, but which is still in the back of everyone's mind.

The incident certainly lost her some fans, and as for her career, we knew back in 2016 that Maria wouldn't be the same force she was when -- and we knew, even at that time, if -- she returned. Sure, she wasn't rehabbing off the courts, but the lack of match play, and the fact that she'd be in her thirties by the time she could compete again just compounded the belief that she was not the kind of player who would be dominant for the long haul.

I don't say that to diminish her accomplishments, but sometimes even when she was the higher seed she felt like the underdog -- she should, after all, have won that Wimbledon final against Petra Kvitova in 2011. Still, I was long a fan and almost always rooted for her to win. The fact that she captured two Major titles on the surface that once made her feel like a cow on ice, just shows what she's capable of.

But as she acknowledges, her biggest asset was her ability to fight, no matter what the odds and even if she didn't come out on top. Her drive and focus provides a lesson that can certainly instruct the next generation:

"I believed that if I kept grinding and grinding, I could push myself to an incredible place. But there is no mastering tennis -- you must simply keep heeding the demands of the court while trying to quiet those incessant thoughts in the back of your mind...I want anyone who dreams of excelling in anything to know that doubt and judgment are inevitable: You will fail hundreds of times, and the world will watch you. Accept it. Trust yourself. I promise that you will prevail."

We might not have seen a lot of Maria over the last few years, especially not in the later rounds of tournaments, but the game certainly will feel different without her -- it'll sound different too. Maria Sharapova ushered in a new generation for tennis, and it's hopefully one that not only brings more young talent (and fans) to the sport, but also shows the importance of grit and determination.

And we can be sure we'll see more of it from her, whatever there is to come.

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