Mailbag: Maria Sharapova More Divisive Than Ever After Stirring U.S. Open Return
- Examining the divided response to Sharapova's return to the Grand Slam stage, plus thoughts on bathroom breaks, interest in doubles tennis and more.
NEW YORK – Questions are piling up. So let’s make inroads and turn U.S. Open Day 5 into Mailbag Day for this week.
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at email@example.com or tweet him @jon_wertheim.
It struck me that Sharapova is the perfect player for the Trump era— outsize image; tone deaf; changes the facts to suit the occasion; never admits she was wrong in any way and instead casts herself as the VICTIM. And yet—still plays to rabidly adoring crowds!
The really sad thing here is, she played a big, bold, awe-inspiring match. I would have been cheering for her too, if she had even once just said, “oops, my bad!” She didn't even need to defend her use of meldonium (when it was legal), just take responsibility for the fact that she made a stupid rookie error by failing to stop once it was banned.
Really, would that have been so hard? Or at this point—again, like Trump—does she just feed on the drama? Listening to her on-court interview after the match, you would have thought she had fought her way back after surviving cancer. SHEESH.
—SMDH in Philly
• And don’t forget the product placement.
Seriously, I debated using this missive, politically-charged as it obviously is. But I’ve always strived for the Mailbag to reflect the vox populi and mirror the spectrum of opinion best as I can tell. And the truth is, Sharapova has inspired plenty of unease and criticism to go along with the warm welcome and forgiveness. As you can imagine, the mail and social media action on Sharapova has been intense this week, as she has made this stirring return. So consider this an exercise in balance and counterbalance. And I’ll offer two overarching thoughts:
1) I offer this without prejudice, but the level of polarization here is really striking. Sharapova has always and unapologetically been a “brand.” And, like any commercial endeavor, that means taking all measures to avoid alienating customers. With Sharapova, there was always a certain calculation and choreography and aversion to public controversy. (Again, not a criticism.) We’re not talking about her popularity in the locker room; we’re talking about reception among the public. That her endorsement portfolio dwarfed Serena’s tells you it worked. …That as backdrop, it’s jarring to see how polarizing she’s become. She’s no longer a pleasant centrist. Now, fans either despise her and use words like “cheater”; or they love her and use words like “martyr.” The player so unlikely to cleave the public has done just that.
2) There still remains a taint to the Sharapova doping controversy. There are still unanswered questions that undercut her victimhood status. Why did she not list this substance on her doping forms if it’s so innocuous. Why use a substance not approved in the U.S., your country of residence? What is she taking for her heart issue and diabetes now that meldonium is banned?..... Yet when it comes to this event, we should have no issues with her card nor her court assignments. She is not “coming off the banned list” as many (including players) assert. She was coming off the banned list in April. The last 120 days have been filled with injuries. Were it not for the injuries, she would have made the draw cut-off here. So she was treated—as Juan Martin del Potro was last year—like a former champ returning from injury. And since she’s in the tournament, you’d be foolish to banish a star of her wattage to the outer reaches. It only makes sense to put her on the big court. And as she wins—and plays at this encouragingly high level—it only makes MORE sense.
I always like your seed reports before the Grand Slam. I noticed your comment that "you aren't a Slam contender until you win a Slam,” or something along this line. So I was wondering, how did you come to pick Madison Keys as last year's winner and this year finalist? Do you know something we don't? Not impossible, of course, as miss Ostapenko proved it, but I doubt anyone had picked her as winner in Paris. Have a great Open!
• When Serena is not in the draw, all bets are off. (Which doesn’t give me a reprieve for picking Keys last year, I realize.)
Am I right to assume the matches played under the roof are logged as "indoor" by the ATP/WTA ?
• No tournaments are categorized as outdoor and—for statistical purposes—that doesn’t change even if played under the retractable roof. (i.e. all matches in Australia, Wimbledon and U.S. Open —even when they are not technically al fresco—are counted as outdoor results.)
What does Borna Coric have to do to reach the same height of Alexander Zverev?
—Cheers, Y.C. Chien
• Grow about six inches? Coric—whom we forget is only 20—is to be commended for that win, likely the biggest of his career. He has a reputation for being a shaky closer so that was particularly encouraging. (As I write this, he’s being sent off by Kevin Anderson in straight sets.)
Wonder if you have a theory on why interest in doubles tennis is not just low, but basically zero? I mean, if I, as a massive sports fan and a casual follower of tennis, didn't know until 15 minutes ago not only that Martina Hingis is still playing, but that she's arguably the top women's doubles player on tour, that's a problem!
• Both tours and the tournaments ought to be sent this question. Doubles is one of the great under-monetized assets in tennis. Fans relate to the action. The matches offer all those old virtues—start with net play and serve-and-volleying—that fans adore. The players are overwhelming accessible. The singles stars don’t play and won’t play; especially as the sport remains this physical. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for doubles to be consign doubles to the alley.
Is this close to being it for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych? They have been so close to cracking the Big Four stranglehold for so many years without ever being able to actually pull it off. And with such a depleted field of their peers for the Open, this was perhaps the best opportunity each of them would ever have to make one more move toward finally nailing that Slam title. Instead, they're both out in the first week, and both beaten pretty thoroughly at that. I really have to wonder if time has passed them by and consigned them to the Hall of Very Good At Most.
—Don St. John, West Hartford, Conn.
• Yeah, sadly, I’m with you. We talk about the decline of the Big Four. But what about the decline of the “Next Four.” David Ferrer—who had a fine summer including a win over Thiem—lost in round one to a qualifier. Tsonga couldn't muster a set against an 18-year-old. (Shapovalov.) Berdych, clearly compromised, went out to the embattled Alex Dolgopolov.
How did Dmitry Tursunov get into the U.S. Open? It doesn't appear he qualified, he isn't a lucky loser, nor does it appear that he received a wild card. So how does the 645th ranked player get into the U.S. Open?
—Brad Mayer, Austin, Texas
• Protected rankings, my friend….
Why is it possible to move the No. 5 seed to the No. 2 spot (and then move someone else into his vacated fifth spot), but as you wrote yesterday "...practically speaking, its impossible" to move the No. 3 seed to the No. 2 spot? Why is one too disruptive to do and the other not? They are both (Cilic and Federer) right-handed players, so that can't be the reason. Is it really all about scheduling two days out—that how you hydrate on Saturday for a Monday match versus Tuesday is so different that players shouldn't be expected to adjust to such a schedule change from two days away? There has to be more to this.
—John Campbell, Portland, Ore.
• Let’s end this this notion that “The USTA made the wrong decision.” The only decision: do we follow the rules or don’t we? Murray’s withdrawal was an unfortunate matter of timing. But the USTA simply could not have issued a “redraw” a day after the first one.
Yes, Maria is back and so was her obligatory bathroom break. I noticed Fed is starting to do this as well now. My husband had a great idea to weed out those who are just trying to change the momentum. You can have a bathroom break, but if the other player chooses not to leave the court too, they can call their coach down for a visit the entire time you are gone. This will make players think twice, not only about leaving the court, but how long they want to hold up play. Imagine Halep getting the benefit of a six-minute Cahill coaching visit!
—Trish Smith, Suwanee, Ga.
• I’m fine with that idea. Also, the USTA’s experiments during the qualifying draw—generally a success—included a limit of bathroom breaks. Change your shirt? Use the facilities? Even clear your head? Fine. Take 12 minutes to regroup? Not cool.
• Another cap tip for Mattress Mac.
• Gael Monfils plays ping-pong. Of course he does.
• Crazy to see Nick Kyrgios still in the doubles draw. (But good for him for sneering at convention.)
• The Federer / Lin Manuel Miranda bromance is great.
• Nick De Toustain has LLS: Chris Pine and Borna Coric