INDIAN WELLS – There’s no way to phrase this without disparaging the talented female players out there trying their very best to get to the top, And that’s not the intention.
But the return of Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka can’t come soon enough for the women’s game. And whenever Serena Williams feels the urge to grace fans of women’s tennis with her presence, that will also be welcome.
The WTA is in a serious lull. It’s almost a blessing in disguise that the association has yet to get its broadcasting/streaming act together and so few people can see it.
The lack of buzz around the BNP Paribas Open the last 10 days on the women’s side was palpable and it’s always telling when the vast majority of journalists and media types in a female player’s press conference are female – these are rare-enough moments under any circumstances. That has often been the case this week, and it’s not a good thing. There’s a stink of marginalization in that ratio that works against everything the women of tennis fight so hard to prove they deserve.
Were it not for the ageless Venus Williams fighting her way through a few rounds until her battered body said no más, there might have been no buzz at all.
Flash back to 2014, when Sharapova was ranked No. 5 and Azarenka No. 4 and they brought some glitter (and high volume) to the proceedings.
Sharapova lost early in the desert that year but then went on a 22-3 run culminating in the French Open title. Serena was No. 1 by a mile, the popular Li Na was No. 2 and Eugenie Bouchard had just jumped into the top 20 with a semi-final showing at the Australian Open. Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic, both crowd favourites, were still near the top.
Looking back, they were good times. We’ve gone from complaining about Serena winning everything to wondering when she’ll get bored with everyday life and come back to give the game a lift.
Quick – name the two finalists in the women’s singles event Sunday. The diehards will know; the rest of the planet will struggle.
They are No. 8 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova and No. 14 seed Elena Vesnina, both very good players, both over 30, neither likely to move the needle on the women’s game by winning such a prestigious title.
Which brings us back to … Azarenka and Sharapova.
This peaceful, quiet interlude is about to end. Sharapova returns from her 15-month doping suspension at Stuttgart next month and Azarenka, who had a baby boy in late December, is targeting a summer return and planning to amp up her training next month with new coach Michael Joyce.
At first, the quiet was a lovely change. Now? It’s TOO quiet.
While Sharapova and Azarenka are polarizing figures who have both devoted fans and fanatic detractors, they move the needle. People pay attention. Both are well-decorated champions and peerless competitors. Sports fans outside tennis know who they are, and that’s something you can’t say about Angelique Kerber or Garbiñe Muguruza or Karolina Pliskova – at least, not yet.
Azarenka will have a protected ranking and won’t need the wild cards. Sharapova, who has been out so long after testing positive for meldonium that she no longer has any ranking points on the computer, is dependant on the kindness of strangers.
Azarenka will enjoy a honeymoon period because of her happy baby story. With Sharapova … it’s complicated.
There already is a faction protesting the way she has been able to begin her comeback at Stuttgart (sponsored by her own sponsor, Porsche) even though her suspension technically will only end after the tournament has already begun. She has received wild cards in Madrid and Rome; the French Open is deliberating, and Wimbledon is waiting to see what the French Open will do.
One tournament director who has come out squarely on Sharapova’s side is Marcel Hunze, who is holding a free pass for Sharapova at a tournament in Rosmalen, Netherlands that kicks off grass-court season. Hunze, whose tournament would obviously reap the benefits of Sharapova’s star power, said the 29-year-old did something wrong, was suspended and served her time and that anyone who read the conclusion of the decision handed down from the Court of Arbitration for Sport, as he did, would feel equally comfortable offering her a wild card.
It’s a nice show of support even if self-serving at its core. Sharapova is getting a lot of flack right now, including from fellow players asked to comment about it here in Indian Wells, about the wild cards she is being granted.
Funny, we’re trying to remember a big kerfuffle when the Croat Marin Cilic returned from a suspension for testing positive for a banned stimulant in 2013 (originally nine months, the CAS reduced it to four months). In his case, he sent his mother to the pharmacy in Monte Carlo to purchase glucose powder, not the same cleared type he had been taking. She told him the pharmacist assured her it was safe to take and his elementary French had him misread one of the ingredients. It sounds sketchy even if it’s 100 per cent true. And yet Cilic returned to little fanfare and even less opposition. Less than a year later, he won the US Open.
No two cases are alike; obviously these two cases are not alike. And doping is a serious thing that has no place in a sport everyone concerned wants to be clean. But the degree of venom directed towards Sharapova is astonishing.
It’s amazing how many people will wish someone ill, just because they don’t like them. While some details of Sharapova’s defence pass the smell test about as well as Cilic’s did, and how “bad” a doping offence is a relative concept, she has done her time.
The most financially successful player in the women’s game lost 15 months of tournament winnings and, more crucially in her late 20s, 15 months of playing time. Who knows what the ordeal has cost her off the court? And she has to start over from scratch with the opponents gunning for her as never before. And, if you’re among those who think the meldonium was performance-enhancing (it doesn’t appear to be, depending on your definition), she’ll have to come back without it.
There’s no need to welcome Sharapova back with open arms if she’s not your cup of tea or if you consider her to be a doper who doesn’t deserve a second chance. But in the big picture, women’s tennis needs all the help it can get right now. The return of these two former No. 1s and Grand Slam champions over the next few months may just give it the WTA a dose of hot sauce it desperately needs.