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Sharapova on court

The softer side of Maria Sharapova. Is it real?

Maria Sharapova’s recent piece for The Player’s Tribune, “Into the Unknown , has caught the tennis world by surprise. In fact, reading through it, I had to scroll back up more than once to verify that those are actually Maria’s words. The piece itself is a memoir of her journey towards embracing uncertainty and it is beautifully written. But the surprise lies in the fact that Sharapova opens up in a way she’s never exposed herself publically before. Addressing her fans, critics and peers, it is a heartfelt message to the outside world, from which she has so strategically hidden that softer part of herself over the years.

Now, that is the “taking things at face value” interpretation. But there are also a few other facts to consider. With her ranking having tanked to 173 in the world after her suspension, her recent injury in Rome and her turning 30 this year, she’s probably starting to realize the size of the mountain she has to climb to get back to the top. And let’s not forget that her new book, “Unstoppable” is scheduled to hit the shelves in September. It wouldn’t be that difficult for the suspicious mind to deduce that some positive publicity would be exactly what she needs right now. Particularly if we are to believe that Unstoppable has actually been written by the reborn, redeemed Sharapova that penned this most recent piece. I’m torn.

Can a tiger change its stripes?

Maria Sharapova is admittedly one of the most controversial players in tennis. She had been a controversial figure long before her suspension for failing that drug test. Talented, hard working, methodical, a true champion with a nearly flawless technique. Her mental toughness is also a force to be reckoned with. At the same time she’s been criticized for being arrogant, annoying, cold and showing poor sportsmanship. The peculiar thing was that Maria herself never seemed to care about any of that. In fact, it seemed as if she was enjoying being the successful villain and actually promoted that persona herself. As if she had decided that would be her unique selling point –and it was really working! She’s sort of admitted part of that in her recent piece:

I’m going to admit something to you now: I like having a little mystique. I’ve never been someone who wants to be known by everyone, or loved by everyone, or even understood by everyone.

But the contradictions of this unique personality, continue within the same heartfelt article:

Do I want people to be tweeting about me, or talking about me, or caring about me, or coming to see me play? Of course. I won’t be disingenuous: I’ve worked hard to get to where I am.

The success story of a secretive introvert with 15 mil. Facebook friends and over 6 mil. Twitter followers.

At another point she mentions:

I’m not oblivious. I’m aware of what many of my peers have said about me, and how critical of me some of them have been in the press. If you’re a human being with a normal, beating heart, you know … I don’t think that sort of thing will ever fully be possible to ignore.

Why would the criticism be something to “ignore” if you genuinely think high of your peers, as you expect them to think of you? Why would you separate yourself from the rest of the flock if you really don’t want to be treated as the scapegoat any more? To validate this further, she goes on to mention one of the reasons why she is so painfully different:

One thing I’ve noticed recently, in the locker room, is how almost every player on tour has the exact same post-match habit: Walk off the court, head into the locker room, and then immediately — I mean, literally before they’ve even changed their clothes or taken a shower — grab their phone, log on to Twitter, and then search through their mentions. It’s something I began to notice a few years ago, and it just really struck me. Here is this … it’s like an Opinion Machine, or a Validation Machine, and everyone seems consumed by it. And who knows — maybe I’m missing out. Maybe it’s wonderful. But that’s just never been my way.

Coincidentally, she again paints herself as the self-assured professional who doesn’t need validation from the public, the strong and confident woman people (including her peers) should look up to. Yes, she doesn’t say it, naivety is definitely not one of Maria’s traits. But I already felt sorry for all those poor, insecure, weak WTA players who don’t even shower before checking what fans and critics tweeted about them, after a loss or win.

And then Maria continues:

I’ve always wanted to face my critics by simply taking the high road. And by showing them, by showing everyone, that taking the high road is a choice.

It is a choice. So is voicing an opinion. Treating the choices you wouldn’t make, or the people who make them, with contempt and a preaching attitude is also a choice. The sum of those choices are, essentially, our character. But no choice is beyond judgment or noble by default.

I’m still torn.

Women’s Tennis needs Sharapova, but Maria needs tennis too.

There has been much discussion about how tennis needs Maria Sharapova. It was obvious during the past several months, with Serena Williams being pregnant, Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova only making a comeback recently and many relatively unknown players climbing the ranks. And it is still the case now. Her fans adore her and they are many. And besides the skill, the talent and the ticket sales she brings, every sport needs its drama and with Maria comes plenty. What I am keeping from her recent attempt to share that other part of herself is that Maria feels she needs tennis too. That she is ready to come back, to give back to the sport and to her fans. That she acknowledges the resentment she’s faced on the tour -and now she can’t take that back and pretend it doesn’t exist.

Tough situations allow us to reconsider the important things in life. It is an incredibly difficult balancing act, during those times, to find the strength to focus on the light and not let the darkness take over. We shouldn’t deny anyone who tries to do that the chance for redemption. So all things considered, I really look forward to seeing her compete again.  I just hope her renewed love for the sport and the competition allows her to tone down the grunting a notch too. 🙂

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