The news of Maria Sharapova’s retirement was significant, but not entirely surprising.
The 32-year-old Russian is no longer the player she once was, hampered by a long-term shoulder injury.
Her performance at the Australian Open, a first-round exit to Croatia’s Donna Vekic, confirmed this.
Unlike her arch rival Serena Williams, Sharapova’s form has plummeted to an unrecoverable low, leaving her 396th in the world. Subsequently, her retirement was almost expected.
Sharapova chose to break the news through a personal essay, published on Vogue and Vanity Fair. This unusual method reflected the dual nature of her 19-year career.
On one hand, Sharapova reached the pinnacle of the tennis world. She first became world number one in 2005, aged 18, having triumphed at Wimbledon the year before.
Four more Grand Slam titles followed, including two at the French Open. In total, Sharapova earned 36 titles, with an Olympic silver medal also coming at London 2012.
On the other hand, Sharapova was extremely prominent in the public eye, treading the line between sportswoman and celebrity with unprecedented skill.
Her ability to capitalise on the immense interest in her saw Sharapova become Forbes’ highest-paid female athlete for 11 years in a row.
Throughout her career, sponsorship deals came from notable companies such as Nike, Tag Heuer, Canon, Motorola, Land Rover, PepsiCo, Sony and Evian. It is estimated Sharapova earned $325million (£253million/€295million) over the years.
At a time when the commercial value of women’s sport was not realised, Sharapova managed to break through this and set a new standard for female athletes.
With these achievements in mind, it would be expected the news of Sharapova’s retirement would cause an outpouring of tributes and praise. The announcement was met with relative silence, however, especially among her fellow professionals. The likes of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have paid homage, while American tennis legend Billie Jean King praised Sharapova for her “business success”.
Other than this, there has been no fond farewell such as the one given to Caroline Wozniacki at the Australian Open, or a premature video montage of emotional goodbyes as given to Andy Murray.
It is suggested that Sharapova was not particularly liked among her contemporaries. She was often seen as something of a lone wolf in the tennis world, sometimes making the situation worse for herself by self-isolating.
This was particularly the case with the aforementioned Williams, who turned out to be Sharapova’s greatest enemy on the court. Off court, the antagonism seemed to continue, with Sharapova claiming that Williams “hated me” in her 2017 autobiography.
Even if the animosity towards Sharapova was accurate, fellow tennis players would still be likely to pay tribute to her, even if out of a grudging respect for the player's achievements. It is more likely the silence surrounding her retirement is to do with the 15-month doping ban she received in 2016, having tested positive for meldonium at the Australian Open.
The news, announced at an infamous press conference in Los Angeles, came at a time when the prevalence of doping in Russian sport was not only common knowledge, but also being heavily investigated. Sharapova’s doping ban still came as a shock however, such was her prominence.
Sharapova had reportedly been taking meldonium, otherwise known as mildronate, since 2006, due to a family history of diabetes. The player claimed she had been unaware the drug was added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances at the start of 2016.
Her excuse was believed, with the Court of Arbitration for Sport reducing her original two-year ban to 15 months. This did not stop the backlash from other tennis players though, with two-time Australian Open champion Jennifer Capriati embarking on a spectacular Twitter rant, demanding that Sharapova be stripped of her 35 career titles.
Upon returning to competition in April 2017, Sharapova was given wild cards to WTA tournaments in Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome. This was deemed unfair, with Murray, who was the men’s world number one at the time, criticising the move and suggesting it was down to financial reasons.
"I think you should really have to work your way back,” he said, as reported by The Times.
“"However, the majority of tournaments are going to do what they think is best for their event. If they think having big names there is going to sell more seats, then they're going to do that."
The likes of Simona Halep, Wozniacki and Angelique Kerber were other players to publicly oppose wild cards for those returning from a doping ban.
Sharapova’s doping offence has also seemed to stick in the mind of the public, who responded to the news of her retirement accordingly.
Nike posted an image of Sharapova on Twitter, accompanied with the caption, “farewell to one of the greatest competitors in the history of the sport.”
The responses underneath branded her a “doper” and a “cheat”. The chief sports correspondent for The Times, Matt Lawton, replied, “the 15 month doping ban aside, obviously.” This brazen retweet gained around 1300 likes.
Many seem to believe that Sharapova’s fall in form was directly linked to the ban of meldonium, insinuating her achievements would not have been possible without some form of medication.
Regardless of whether this is true or not, Sharapova’s retirement has played into the wider debate about how athletes who serve doping bans and return to action are viewed. Some, such as Sharapova, are forever treated with scepticism. She is similar to athletes such as American sprinting stars Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay, who never seem able to shake their previous misdemeanours from public memory.
Others, such as British boxer Tyson Fury and Argentinian footballing legend Diego Maradona, are able to find redemption.
For whatever reason, Sharapova was unable to do this. Despite her achievements on and off the court, her legacy will subsequently always be somewhat complicated.