JOHANNESBURG - Overcome with emotion, Maria Sharapova fell to her knees, tearfully celebrating her first round victory over Simona Halep at the US Open earlier this week.
After her emotional victory, Sharapova said: “Behind this little black dress and the Swarovski crystals, there is a girl with a lot of grit and she’s not going anywhere.”
Except that ‘girl’ shouldn’t be at the US Open at all. It says something truly tragic that one of the world’s pre-eminent sporting events must rely on the infamy of a player that was condemned for doping only a year ago. But, truth be told, as much as the the Russian needs the US Open, the US Open needs Sharapova more. The coverage surrounding her at the event, moreover, says something equally disturbing about the state of tennis, especially in the women’s game.
Sharapova’s opponent on Monday, Halep, is ranked second on the WTA rankings and in spite of her early exit, can still raise to the No 1 spot, if the draw eliminates her competitors, after the conclusion of the tournament. Halep has never won a Grand Slam, her closest attempt coming earlier this year when she reached the final of the French Open, a repeat performance of her 2015 attempt.
She, and the remainder of the women jockeying in the top 10, are a product of the Serena Williams-era. The American has dominated the game, winning 23 Grand Slam singles titles since her first US Open victory in 1999. Currently, only six other women in the top 20 - Garbine Muguruza, Angelique Kerber, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Serena’s older sister Venus, Jelena Ostapenko and Petra Kvitova have won a major title.
And that is the biggest problem with women’s tennis at the moment - the majority of those players aren’t particularly appealing. None of them seem charismatic on court. None of them capture the imagination. Even the would-be champions waiting in the wings, such as Eugenie Bouchard and Caroline Wozniacki, seem tedious.
Ultimately, it is Serena, now on a hiatus from the sport as she prepares to give birth to her first child, that has driven the sport forward with her charisma and celebrity to this point of pre-eminence.
The men’s game suffers from a similar malaise. Roger Federer is ‘Mr Nice Guy’, an affable chap, a dad jokes kinda guy. Rafa Nadal is the boy next door, who just so happens to have glistening, muscular arms that he can flex every so often to woo men and women alike. And when the duo are not winning titles, they are complementing each other’s victories.
How civilised, how boring. Luckily, they are masters of their arts, kings of men who sit upon lofty thrones looking down upon us plebeians and that has its own hero-worshiping appeal. They, and the other men in the top 5 - Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic - are magnetic in their dominance of the sport, or in their endearing and infuriating idiosyncrasies.
Which brings us back to Sharapova. Her presence, in the eyes of the Open’s organisers anyway, has created an underdog tale, a redemption song, an I-was-there story. She is the biggest star at Flushing Meadows, a commodity that has serious commercial heft attached to it.
Nevermind that her victories make a mockery of the sport and attempts to stifle doping, or if she were to win the event, it would be a hollow victory tainted forever by her indiscretions. She puts bums-on-seats, eyes-on-the-telly and money in the bank.
Her systematic use of meldonium over a 10 year period, for which she was banned after testing positive for the substance at the 2016 Australian Open, should have had a far larger, negative impact on her career. She should still be paying the price in some fashion. But it seems that if you are a mysterious ice queen sex symbol femme-fatale bankable blonde bombshell, the consequences of your actions aren’t that severe.
It is quite unfortunate that the cautionary tale of Sharapova, which should have been a deterrent with concern to doping, has instead revealed the worst characteristics of professional sport, all based on the impiety of greed. Good luck to Sharapova and her bid to win the US Open. But, as a former fan, for various reasons, I won’t be cheering her on.