It was a little more than a decade ago that Maria Sharapova debuted a little black dress at a U.S. Open night session. Fully inhabiting the role of ingenue, her Audrey Hepburn inspired dress was the perfect image for her as she won her only title (thus far) in New York.
Tonight she returned to the same stage — as far from an ingenue as she can be. The little black dress was now transformed into something more edgy, with its leather and lace accents amid the Swarovski crystals. Something deconstructed, not unlike its wearer.
It’s strange to see how much ire Sharapova inspires these days, which is reaching Taylor Swift-ian proportions. It’s an apt comparison. Both find themselves the object of incredible scorn these days, after spending much of their heydays hailed as marketing geniuses who expertly crafted their images. While there is plenty they have in common in their market savvy as precocious teen talents, they may even have more in common as women who are learning to navigate the world after suffering public cracks in the veneer. As it turns out, it’s much harder to craft one’s image on the way back up.
I can’t help but wonder what would have happened had Sharapova not tried so hard to control the narrative of her positive drug test. What if she hadn’t tried to explain why she was taking meldonium? What if her agent hadn’t tried to take the fall for her by claiming it was his job to check the WADA list on his vacation? What if she just admitted that it was a supplement that she didn’t realize was now banned?
And what of her carefully constructed return to tennis? The soft, introspective Vogue profile, the little peeks into her previously guarded mind, and the slightly juicy but probably not all that revealing biography. Somehow, the steps that looked natural, or at least natural-ish, the first time around arouse much more suspicion these days.
Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but if I had to guess, Sharapova might have fared better had she not gamed the system by returning to Stuttgart on the first day she was allowed to play post-ban. Surely she wanted to get back out there, and the tournament’s title sponsor, Porsche, was eager to have one of their endorsers in the draw. But it was a bad look for a player who was already going to be in the crosshairs of the media, her peers, and the public. That seemingly innocuous decision to enter a tournament not well known outside tennis circles opened the floodgates to critical quotes from her colleagues and a media circus happy to report on the discord.
Watching Sharapova play tonight was a true pleasure. Her high risk, high rewards game has thrilled far more often than it has thudded, and her competitive intensity makes every match compelling. From the very start, it’s always been clear that Sharapova sees the court differently than the rest of us. She finds angles and depth that seem to be hers alone. Sure, there are a lot of errors and the serve has abandoned her for years at a time, but Sharapova has managed to win for over a decade, sometimes in spite of her play rather than because of it. Tonight cemented her place as one of the great big match players of her generation ( non-Serena division).
We should also spare a thought for Simona Halep — the game, if unlucky, foil for Sharapova’s return. As much as Sharapova relishes the big matches, Halep has shrunk from them over and over this year. Tonight, the world number two acquitted herself well against a very tough draw. A first round loss isn’t the result Halep wanted, but the fight she showed in fending off Sharapova in the second set gives her something to build on through the fall.
Perhaps the true surprise of the night was Sharapova’s emotional reaction to her win. She reminded us all that behind that carefully crafted image has always been a lot of grit. And while she may not win the hearts of the fans she lost over the past couple of years, she certainly deserves their respect.