Maria Sharapova said of Victoria Azarenka: "It’s pretty tough to know what her state is and how she’s feeling." (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
ROME -- No. 2 Maria Sharapova on Friday questioned Victoria Azarenka's decision to withdraw from the Italian Open and defended the rules that the top-ranked player cited to explain her early departure.
Azarenka, who said she was struggling with a shoulder injury entering the tournament, played one round here in order to avoid a rankings point penalty. The Belarusian said that "if WTA rules were different then I could have focused on getting healthy," but instead she stuck around long enough to defeat Shahar Peer 6-1, 6-2 before pulling out of the French Open tune-up. (Click here for more on Azarenka's withdrawal.)
To say that Sharapova wasn't sympathetic to Azarenka's plight would be an understatement. The Russian went out of her way to highlight Azarenka's history of retiring or withdrawing from tournaments, only to rebound almost immediately. Last year, Azarenka retired during her quarterfinal match against Sharapova in the Italian Open, and then went on to make the quarterfinals of the French Open and the semifinals of Wimbledon. Azarenka also withdrew after one match in Beijing last October and three weeks later she won Luxembourg and reached the finals of the WTA Championships.
"She's probably been injured more than any other player and yet is able to be No. 1 in the world," Sharapova said after beating Venus Williams 6-4, 6-3 in the quarterfinals. "Last year she, I think, had more retirements than anyone but was still able to play a full schedule. A few days after retiring from an event she was practicing at the next tournament. It's pretty tough to know what her state is and how she's feeling."
Sharapova made it clear that she would never put money or rankings above her health. In fact, she's carrying two zero-point penalties herself for skipping Beijing last year and Charleston this year.
"Personally, if I'm injured, no matter what the fine is, no matter how big or small, the body is the most important to me," Sharapova said. "If I'm not healthy enough to play, those are the rules. Yes, this is a tournament you have to compete in, yes, you might get zero points. But to be honest, I don't really care about that. My health is the most important thing."
While Azarenka criticized the WTA Roadmap and said she hoped "in the future there will be more protection for players' rights," Sharapova echoed Serena Williams' comments in supporting the system. The two veterans agreed that the current setup is fine and, as Sharapova pointed out, it's up to the players to manage their schedules even if that means taking a hit in cash or points.
"We have a new system with new rules with mandatory tournaments, which has obviously been very successful because all the top players have attended, and you see the amount of fans, the amount of TV coverage with that," Sharapova said. "There's no reason why the system's not working. It is. It's just sometimes players at different times of the year, you get injured, and sometimes you have to pay a little bit out of your pocket to not play. Sometimes you have to do a little more media for the tournament. But if you're not healthy, you don't play."