“Behind all these Swarovski crystals and little black dresses this girl has a lot of grit, and she’s not going anywhere.” Has there ever been a better quote from athlete that sums up their own approach to competing? I doubt it.
Maria Sharapova spoke these words after defeating World No. 2 Simona Halep in her first Grand Slam match in almost two years Monday night. Given that a drug suspension caused the Russian’s lengthy absence, this story has an element of darkness that is different from previous U.S. Open runs such as the legendary Jimmy Connors reaching the semis in 1991 as a 39-year-old wildcard or the farewell runs of Andre Agassi in 2005 and 2006.
However, like Connors and Agassi, Sharapova has taken over this U.S. Open. Like any other sport, tennis has a loyal and devoted fan base. Even so, it struggles to crossover into mainstream media. Sharapova’s New York rebirth has done that. Her first round victory in a blockbuster matchup made both CNN and The Today Show the following morning. The U.S. Open drew a record crowd for opening match on Monday.
All of this reinforces the fact that the U.S. Open made the right call by giving the 2006 champion a wildcard. You can talk all you want about the morals and ethics of giving a player with a drug suspension a free pass into the main draw. However, tennis tournaments are a business. The numbers and crowds say Sharapova is fantastic for business.
There are so many elements that have added to the intrigue of this story. First, is Sharapova herself. Since returning from suspension in April, her body has not cooperated with her at all. She suffered a small tear in her hip in just her third tournament back and was out until late August. She returned the tour in Stanford where she withdrew with an arm injury after just one match and did not play again until Monday night’s thrilling opener.
Even if you are one of those people that tuned in in hopes of seeing Sharapova fail, her reaction after her first victory had to soften you a little bit. The five time Grand Slam champion fell to her knees in tears. This came from someone who is notorious for the lack of emotion she shows on the court. You could tell that she was not sure if she was ever going to have a moment like that again. Thus, seeing how much just one victory back on the big stage meant to her was powerful to say the least.
That brings us to the New York crowds. At minimum, a mixed reaction would have been understandable. Human beings are funny things though. They have greeted Sharapova with nothing but long standing ovations and autograph lines on the practice court. If anything, Sharapova is more popular now than before she was suspended.
For what it is worth, Sharapova took responsibility for failing the drug test from the very beginning and was exonerated of any intentional wrongdoing by the court that reduced her suspension. I can only speculate that this combined with Sharapova’s obvious desire and gratitude to be back on the big stage again has won a lot of people over.
Sharapova’s fellow competitors have not been nearly as forgiving. With a few exceptions, they continue to be her most vocal critics. This is been going on since April. At this event specifically, Caroline Wozniacki took issue with Sharapova being placed on the 23000 seat Arthur Ashe Stadium while the Danish former World No. 1 was shuffled to an outside court thanks to a backloaded schedule caused by rain delays. Wozniacki lost her match. Rising American player CoCo Vandeweghe became the latest to join the chorus of players that believe Sharapova should not be playing at all.
Back to Sharapova herself. Is she rusty? Yes. Is she 100% healthy? It does not look like it. Yet, with all the drama surrounding her, she continues to roll up her sleeves and simply compete like the quote in the opening paragraph would suggest. That has allowed her to join Vandeweghe and 14 other players in the second week of the U.S. Open. Several of her critics have already taken flights home. She may never directly state it publicly, but that has to be pretty vindicating for Sharapova.