Maria Sharapova and the Gods of Tennis

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Maria was bigger than the sport. Now she’s going to have to be even bigger.

—- by Christopher Johnson —-

More than most other sports, tennis has an unwritten code of ethics and etiquette.

When you hit the net and the ball drops over anyway, you raise your hand and apologize for winning the point. It’s the same for hitting a winner off the frame or gaining from a wicked spin or angle by mistake. In tennis, you apologize if you didn’t win a point fairly

You don’t even think of cheating. It’s rude. It’s not tennis. You could jump or scream during your opponents serve, but that’s not tennis. You could serve when your opponent’s not ready, but that’s also not tennis. Nobody does it, because it would offend the Gods of Tennis who let you win points off framers and net chords.

In tennis, there’s a belief in the powers of spiritual purity, similar to “bushido” in Japanese martial arts, that elevates players to a higher plane. Novak Djokovic, playing some of the best tennis ever, recently spoke about realizing he could attain a higher level on the court by purifying his life off the court.

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Roger Federer could date hundreds of women like Wilt Chamberlain or party with celebrities night after night. But he and other players (Djokovic and Andy Murray for example) tend to marry their sweethearts early and focus on training and preparing. They saw the downfall of Bjorn Borg, Andre Agassi and others from their lifestyles. They are aiming for higher places in history.

With a clean mind and clear conscience, players can endure five-hour battles and still concentrate under pressure with wobbly legs. In these epic wars of attrition, the victor is usually the player with the toughest mind and biggest heart. Fans love it when Novak applauds Andy’s shot, or Rafa puts his arm around a tearful Roger, or Serena praises whoever beat her. These champions are fueled by love and adoration. It’s the most powerful drug in sport. 

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That’s why PEDs (performance enhancing drugs) have no place in tennis. They likely hurt more than help. If doping wins majors, anybody could do it. It’s not like cycling, swimming or sprinting. Tennis is like chess for boxers running a marathon of sprinting. Winning in tennis requires grit and endurance but also the highest levels of intelligence, courage and soul. PEDs might build muscles, but they can diminish one’s faith. As Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins sang in This Time: “For every chemical, you lose a bit of your soul …. with no return.”

Maria Sharapova must be feeling this way. It’s hard to know what really happened during her spectacular career. While some accuse of her of using meldonium for advantage over other players, the drug’s side effects perhaps also contributed to her injuries and sporadic play over her career. Fueled by medication, maybe she trained and played too hard, or recovered too soon.

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The governing bodies of tennis, while needing to punish offenders and deter other players from using PEDs, should focus investigations on the doctors, trainers, coaches and parents who de facto control young players at all levels. The Food and Drug Administration, which has noted that it’s illegal to import “unapproved drugs” into the United States, can take measures to protect athletes from those who might push their bodies too hard to win. Some have even suggested a sort of “biological passport” for players to show substances in their bodies, whether legal or not.

“Trainers, doctors, the heads of sports federations must take responsibility,” says Russia’s sports minister Vitaly Mutko. “The most terrible thing is that the sportsperson suffers.”

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Sharapova will suffer greatly from this. A superstar since age 17, she became one of the most popular female athletes in world history. She had everything: the looks, the money and the trophies. She had a $70 million sponsorship deal with Nike from 2010 to 2018. She was perhaps only months away from retiring into a place in history as one of the all-time greats of the game. Now she’s going to be remembered for a scandal that could spread and take down many stars of the sports world.

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I was lucky to photograph Sharapova’s last title in Rome in 2015. Though known for being more cold and distant than other players, Sharapova did inspire millions of girls to play tennis, especially in Eastern Europe and Asia. I once taught a junior high class in Japan. The girls wanted to play tennis because they wanted to be “Sharapova”. They wanted to dress like her, or become successful like her. I knew girls like this in China, Thailand, Ukraine and elsewhere. Maria was bigger than the sport. Now she’s going to have to be even bigger.

With time away from tennis, Maria will have a chance to become a true role model. She’s been a “brand ambassador” for Nike, Porsche, Avon, Evian and others. Now she has a chance to become an ambassador for bigger causes. She could do something positive about substance abuse — an issue affecting millions of people, not only elite athletes.

As the world’s highest-paid female athlete, she has the best opportunity to lead a campaign for cleaning up the world of sports. Anything less will offend the Gods of Tennis.

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(words and images copyright Christopher Johnson Globalite Media all rights reserved)

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