The Maria Sharapova meldonium fall out reminds me of a poignant comment by Rachel Griffiths. “There's nothing as exciting as a comeback,” said the Australian actress and director. “Seeing someone with dreams, watching them fail, and then getting a second chance.” The creative wisdom of that thought acquires loaded significance in the context of Sharapova’s two year suspension for using performance enhancing drugs.
The Russian is all of 29, but she can be excused for thinking she was into her third life. Her rags to riches story inspired great attention ever since she broke into the big league with a thundering victory at the spiritual home of tennis.
Sharapova’s rise as a talented tennis player with cover page looks drew comparisons with Anna Kournikova, another Russian star that made good on her looks without accomplishing anything of significance on the tennis court. Sharapova shattered the stereotypical mould when she won Wimbledon in 2004, drawing attention to her work ethic, the sacrifices of her family and her enormous talent as a tennis player.
She never let go from there - playing with great resilience through injury and loss of form to add to her reputation as a formidable tennis player. Victories at the US Open in 2006, Australian Open two years later and finally the French Open in 2012 and 2014 helped create a great legacy for the Russian diva.
Naturally, it shocked the tennis world when she revealed in March that she had failed a drug test. The 29-year-old had been using Meldonium since 2006 and the drug was added to WADA banned list starting 2016. The incident has thrown Sharapova’s flourishing career off the rails, but it also sets the stage for a stirring comeback by the determined woman.
I found Maria’s statement on Facebook very reticent, but it is heartening to see her resolve to return to the tennis courts at the end of this sordid saga. The clenched fist of Sharapova and her resolute battles on the court captivated her fans.
She scripted some memorable victories even while struggling to serve with a dubious shoulder and her legion of fans would revel in her comeback, if she can script one. And I have no doubt that the Russian deserves a second chance at life to redeem herself in the eyes of the tennis world. It would be a test of character that would be compelling to watch.
Maria can draw inspiration from several other women who made a captivating return to the tour after getting off the bus for different reasons, which may or may not compare with the Russian’s story.
Martina Hingis, winner of the French Open mixed doubles title just a few days is a case in point. The Swiss shocked the tennis fraternity when she retired at just 22. She had already won everything but the French Open as a precocious 16 year old. A comeback in 2006 came unstuck when she was suspended for taking cocaine in 2007.
Unwilling to give up tennis, Hingis has made a successful comeback in doubles, a journey that started in 2013. She rose to world No.1 in the company of Sania Mirza and has won all four mixed doubles titles with Leander Paes.
Jennifer Capriati was another prodigy that fell off the rails, dissolving into a complete mess in full view of the world. She shot to fame by reaching the Wimbledon semifinals in 1991 when she was just 15. But she spiraled out from there – drugs, shoplifting and police mug shots characterizing her life. Capriati redeemed herself with a spirited comeback in 2001 when she won the Australian and French Open titles.
Kim Clijsters is another example, but in a far more inspiringly positive sense. The Belgian walked away from tennis in 2007, after being ravaged by a series of injuries. She returned to the tour a couple of years later, having given birth to a child in the interim.
Clijsters won the US Open in 2009, just the third event on her return. She would go on to defend her title the next year before becoming the world No.1 with victory at the Australian Open in 2011. It was a comeback that was as epochal as it was emotional with motherhood thrown in for good effect.
Now Sharapova has an opportunity to take a leaf out of the redemption book and narrate a tale of her own. The Russian will be eager to redeem her reputation for more than sporting reasons. She has been the highest earning sportswoman in the world for eleven straight years, before making way for Serena Williams this year.
The commercial empire surrounding Sharapova is already closing ranks and supporting the Russian. Nike has decided to resume their partnership, lifting the suspension they imposed earlier this year. "Maria has always made her position clear, has apologised for her mistake and is now appealing the length of the ban,” read a statement from the marquee brand. "Based on the decision of the ITF and their factual findings, we hope to see Maria back on court and will continue to partner with her."
Racquet manufacturer Head has also assured their continued support for the Russian star. Sharapova also has her own brand of candy, retailing globally as Sugarpova.
As Sharapova appeals her suspension with the sports tribunal, the world of tennis will eagerly watch to see the Russian star find the resolve and commitment needed to make a compelling return to the sport into her third decade.