In May 2014, when golfer Rory McIlroy dumped his tennis-pro fiancee Caroline Wozniacki over the phone, mere days after wedding invitations went out, Wozniacki’s most enthusiastic supporter was also an opponent.
Serena Williams became her private and public cheerleader, even telling Vogue: “Let’s just put an end to this myth that women players cannot be friends. We can!”
So it was awfully telling a couple weeks ago when almost no one in tennis came to Maria Sharapova’s defence in her time of need.
On March 7, the Russian-born tennis champ stood before the press and admitted that she had failed a drug test, having tested positive for meldonium – a medication banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency since the beginning of 2016 that aids in blood flow and can give an edge when it comes to cardiovascular performance.
“I did fail the test and I take full responsibility for it,” said Sharapova, a five-time Grand Slam winner said to be worth some $125 million.
The disclosure sent shock waves through the international tennis community, as Sharapova was placed on provisional suspension (reports say her co-operation could shorten her suspension to months instead of years).
Meanwhile, Nike, TAG Heuer and Porsche immediately froze their longstanding relationships with the superstar, who, according to Forbes, made $23 million from endorsements in 2015 (other sponsors include Head rackets, Samsung and Evian).
It was a devastating blow, especially considering that Sharapova, 28, said she had been taking the drug for 10 years for a magnesium deficiency but neglected to notice it had been added to the banned list this year.
And Dick Pound, former president of the World Anti-Doping Agency, said that there had been a “fairly high prevalence of (meldonium) use in tennis.”
But if there was any sympathy from Sharapova’s fellow pros, it wasn’t to be found in print.
Wozniacki sniffed, “As athletes, we always make sure there’s nothing in it that could put us in a bad situation”. Petra Kvitova seconded that opinion, telling the Desert Sun newspaper, “We should all know what we are putting into our body”. Said Victoria Azarenka, “A lot of players are upset and disappointed”.
Sharapova’s longtime rival, Williams, gave the closest thing to a pat on the back, saying, “(It) showed a lot of courage to admit to what she had done and what she had neglected to look at”.
But perhaps the most damning commentary came from the woman long known as tennis’ sweetheart – 18-time Grand Slam champ and ESPN analyst Chris Evert. “It’s hard to tell (the reaction from players) because Maria Sharapova has always isolated herself from the rest of the tennis world, from the players. She doesn’t have a lot of close friendships on the tour.”
As Sharapova told the Telegraph in 2013, “I’m not really close to many players. I think just because you’re in the same sport it doesn’t mean that you have to be friends with everyone”.
“She most definitely doesn’t seem to have any friends on tour,” confirms a strength coach who has worked with a top-10 female player.
“She is very cold. When Maria walks into (the players’ lounge), things will stop midsentence. Her camp (coaches, trainers, assistants) and even (now-ex-boyfriend tennis pro) Grigor Dimitrov would be chatting with everyone, and when (Sharapova) would walk in, Grigor and her coach would make eye contact and know to stop socialising. It became a joke among everyone (in pro tennis).”
Part of the problem may be that this is the one game Sharapova doesn’t know how to play.
Says the coach, “(Women’s tennis) is very much like high school and ‘Mean Girls’, except there aren’t any cliques.”
In fact, many players look at the tour as being every woman for herself, rather than like a sorority. “It’s something players cultivate to keep their edge,” Mary Joe Fernández, a former top-10 player who is now the captain of the American Fed Cup team, told Vogue.
Sharapova’s failing, it seems, is that she doesn’t know how to plaster on a fake smile. “Even if the players don’t like each other, they converse and are cordial,” says the coach. “That is definitely not the case with Maria.”
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In some ways, the coach adds, these powerful women really haven’t progressed beyond being teenagers.
“These girls have been touring since they were 12, 13, 14 years old – their formative years – and they continue to travel in this same bubble. They don’t get that outside exposure. They live in a vacuum, so there are elements of jealousy when a girl rises in the ranks.”
And schadenfreude when she stumbles.
There’s certainly plenty to be jealous of when it comes to Sharapova, though she had a far-from-glamorous beginning.
Sharapova picked up her first racket in Russia at the age of 4. Three years later, in 1994, her parents moved to Florida – arriving with just $700 – at the encouragement of Martina Navratilova, who had seen the girl play at a tennis clinic in Moscow.
Sharapova’s father, Yuri, worked as a dishwasher to fund Maria’s lessons. It paid off in 2002, when she first competed on the Women’s Tennis Association tour at age 15.
She won Wimbledon at 17 and, a year later, was ranked No. 1 for the first of five times. Since then, she’s claimed 35 singles titles and five Grand Slam titles, a feat topped among active players only by Serena and Venus Williams. From 2003 through 2015, she won at least one singles title a year – a streak even the Williams sisters can’t claim.
John McEnroe has called her “one of the greatest competitors our sport has ever seen”. He also said recently that, “It would be hard to believe that no one in her camp, the 25 or 30 people that work for her, or Maria herself, had (any) idea that (meldonium had been banned)”.
According to Forbes, she is the highest-earning female athlete in the world, thanks to endorsements and entrepreneurial ventures – which include her candy line, Sugarpova.
Not only did brands take notice, so did the fashion world. Standing at a slim 188cm, she looks more like a model than an athlete, and has long been courted by the style community, landing in the pages of every magazine from Vogue to InStyle. She is a front-row fixture at New York Fashion Week, and last fall took in the Chanel show in Paris seated next to Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour.
The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue jumped on the bandwagon, signing Sharapova three years before they asked Serena Williams.
Reports of a vicious rivalry between the two have swirled for years. After all, Sharapova began dating Dimitrov in 2013 – just after Serena reportedly ended a relationship with the handsome Bulgarian.
During a 2013 interview with Rolling Stone, Williams mocked a top-five player who many assumed was Sharapova, given that, at the time, she was enjoying the honeymoon phase of her relationship with Dimitrov. (The pair would split two years later.)
“She begins every interview with ‘I’m so happy. I’m so lucky’ – it’s so boring,” Williams told the magazine. “She’s still not going to be invited to the cool parties. And, hey, if she wants to be with the guy with a black heart, go for it.”
The strength coach says there is also an intense rivalry between Azarenka and Sharapova: “They live in the same town (Manhattan Beach, California) and would be two feet from each other, and you’d never know they knew each other.”
Still, a sports agent who knows the women of the WTA tour says that Wozniacki and Serena’s friendship is an anomaly in individual sports.
“Is Ronda Rousey going to be friends with her biggest competitor? I don’t think it’s going to happen in any field that’s competitive,” the agent says. “That’s why people like (Wozniacki and Serena’s) story. But it sets up unrealistic expectations.”
Sharapova’s ice-queen act may just be good business. Says the agent, “She’s a really professional person. It’s a job for her. I don’t think Maria is the type of person to announce, ‘This is my BFF’. She goes about her business.”