These past few years it has been impossible to ignore Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon, her face has been everywhere. As you made your way to the All England Club, there she was, looking surprised on every bus stop in commercials for Evian; looking cool on every poster endorsing Nike.
And then there are the girls handing out samples of Sugarpova Silly “a premium candy line that reflects the fun, fashionable, sweet side of international tennis sensation, Maria Sharapova’ .
Being presented as the undisputed queen of the courts in this way, you might think odd, especially given she has not won the title at Wimbledon since 2004. For eleven injury-checked years since then, her playing record on the lawns of south west London has been patchy; her time in the tournament often lasting not much longer than one of the trademark shrieks she emits every time she hits the ball.
Sharapova at the press conference.
Sharapova at the press conference.
On court she was long ago outflanked by Serena Williams, Petra Kvitova and Angelique Kerber. Her form on the billboards, however, has been unstoppable. While others might scoop the silverware, she has hoovered up the cash. For a decade she has been the highest paid sportswoman in the world, depositing a cool $30million a year into her kitbag.
Not for much longer. On Tuesday, in a shrewdly stage-managed mea culpa, she revealed she had tested positive for a banned substance during the Australian Open in January. Boldly accepting responsibility, she made no attempt to hide her guilt.
For ten years, she explained, she had been taking a prescription medicine called meldonium and had neglected to notice when it as placed on the banned list by the international tennis authorities on January 1st. She held her hands up: it was her fault. She would take the consequences.
Maria Sharapova of Russia reacts during her loss to Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland in the women’s final of the Sony Ericsson Open tennis tournament
Maria Sharapova of Russia reacts during her loss to Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland in the women’s final of the Sony Ericsson Open tennis tournament CREDIT: REUTERS
They were immediate. Nike and Porsche both tore up commercial deals, Evian announced it was following developments closely. For the canniest business woman in sport, this has been the most chastening of weeks.
Never mind that a ruling on the length of the inevitable playing ban imposed is yet to be announced, the damage has already been done to the thing Maria Sharapova has always valued above all else: her bank account.
He approach to the folding stuff is no surprise, given her background. She had been treated as a commodity by her father ever since he arrived a penniless immigrant from Russia and deposited her on the tennis courts of Florida.
Characterised by many who came into contact with him as fanatical such was his obsessive determination to see his girl succeed, Yuri Sharapov had been encouraging her to thwack balls as if they had done her personal harm. Not because he had a burning love of the game. But because that was the way to wealth.
Maria Sharapova lost to Angelique Kerber in three sets on Day 8 of the Wimbledon 2014 Tennis Tournament .
Maria Sharapova lost to Angelique Kerber in three sets on Day 8 of the Wimbledon 2014 Tennis Tournament . CREDIT: Heathcliff O’Malley
“I do respect the money that I’ve made,” she told an interviewer in 2013, “because I didn’t grow up having a lot.”
The good news for her old man was that hand in hand with her facility at playing came an ease with self-promotion. Making her debut at the tournament aged 17, she charmed and sparkled; captivated when on duty for a commercial partner and glowed in the photographic studio.
Her smile was there to be bought, her cooperation to be switched on in return for a cheque. Hers was precisely the kind of image with which brands wanted to associate: clean-limbed, athletic and blonde. This was someone who not only looked a million dollars, but was soon worth it too.
What a different figure she cut on the circuit. While she smiled on the billboards, on court she was cold, utterly ruthless, her shriek rising in volume when she was losing in deliberate attempt to unsettle her opponent. In the locker room, while Williams was jokey and friendly, Sharapova was aloof, describing it as her “least favourite space in the world.” For her, it was simply a place of business.