SHOW US YOUR HEART, MARIA – AND OTHER NOTES ON OPENING DAY IN THE DESERT
• Let the games begin. Hunky tennis jocks play soccer on an inviting lawn, overflow crowds watch Rafa practice, the sun sets gently into the desert horizon – welcome to Indian Wells. The tennis community again gathers for its annual grand California tennis festival.
• Sharapova is the world’s most successful businesswoman, so why didn’t she look with care at the updated list of prohibited drugs?
• There’s so much to admire about Maria. She’s had a fabulous career, and she forged a gritty comeback from a devastating shoulder injury. She’s entertained millions across the globe, and fused the Russian-American gap better than any other public figure.
But there was something quite off in her press conference announcement – a certain aloofness. Then again, this is the same cool attitude we have seen from her for almost all of her career. Simona Halep was asked today whether she’d spoken to Maria. She said no, and then said she hadn’t spoken to Maria before today, either.
Anyway, there wasn’t much heart in Maria’s announcement. We didn’t hear any real sorrow or sincere apologies to her fans, or real reflections on how her failure hurt the sport that has given her everything. Her failure to grasp her situation and the moment was revealed in the haughty quip: “If I were going to announce my retirement, it wouldn’t be in an LA hotel with an ugly carpet.” The comment was tone-deaf. Ultimately, Sharapova didn’t come from the heart – never a good thing when you’re in crisis and seeking forgiveness and compassion.
But – this just in. Maria did post a beautiful, well-written morning-after note to her fans on Facebook. It was lovely. It was just a shame we didn’t see more of that when, so to speak, the world was watching.
• Maria was very aware of drug protocols. She once said that one thing she’s looking forward to when she retires is just going to a drugstore and picking up something without getting approval, and not having to think.
• Once when he was in a deep slump late in his career, the quick-witted Jim Courier joked, “I should have never stopped taking those drugs. Once those East German doctors left my team I’ve never been the same.”
• Past tennis drug bans include Martina Hingis, Marin Cilic, Petr Korda, Viktor Troicki, Barbora Strycova, Mariano Puerta,Guillermo Canas, Guillermo Coria and Wayne Odesnik.
• Sharapova’s family has a history of diabetes symptoms, yet she markets her Sugarpova candy big time.
• Sharapova admitting “I’ve made a huge mistake” is reminiscent of a line by her recent doubles opponent Will Arnett, who also stars in the show “Arrested Development.”
• John Isner put his stunning Davis Cup loss to Great Britain’s Jamie Ward last year in the rearview mirror by being the hero of our triumphant win over Australia in Melbourne. Never mind that it was Lleyton Hewitt’s first Davis Cup tie as captain, that the match was on grass, which is not Isner’s favorite surface, or that for the fourth time we were playing on the road. The big Carolinian unleashed one of his most stunning service performances as he clinched the tie for us when he beat Bernie Tomic 6-4, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (4). Isner had no double faults, blasted an incredible 49 aces and hit the fastest serve ever stroked on the tour level – 157 mph. The US will next play Croatia on July 15-17 and will be hoping to avenge a horrific loss to them in Carson, in 2005, when our all-star team, with Andre Agassi, and Andy Roddick, and the Bryans, faltered badly.
• An Australian fan named Gareth who heads the Aussie Fanatics dressed up as Donald Trump during the Davis Cup tie. He told Inside Tennis that he doesn’t think Trump “is suitable to be president,” based “on what Donald says.” He said he threw money out on the court because Trump gloats about how much money he has.
• After a 15-year absence, Venus Williams will return to Indian Wells at the Friday, March 11th day session. Serena will play her first match since the Aussie Open final on Friday evening.
Tennis has endured plenty of tumultuous earthquakes.
Billie Jean King shocked a very different world from today’s when she came out of the closet and revealed she was gay in 1981.
In 1983, Bjorn Borg seemingly was in top form and rolling along pretty well. But suddenly he retired at age 26. Vitas Gerulaitis tragically died in 1994 due to a freak carbon monoxide accident in Long Island. The beloved icon Arthur Ashe announced he had AIDS in 1992, and the then-dominant Monica Seles was stabbed in the back in Hamburg in 1993.
But never has our sport seen a seven-week stretch with more crashing waves and outright tsunamis than have occurred this season.
Just an hour before the Australian Open was about to start, the BBC and BuzzFeed rattled the sport by saying they would be revealing shocking data about gambling, match-fixing and tennis. As one curious revelation after another emerged, tennis shook.
Then in the Aussie Open itself, legend Lleyton Hewitt retired and there was the stunning upset of the supposedly dominant Serena Williams by Angelique Kerber. After he lost in the semis, the long-healthy Roger Federer suffered a fluke injury while playing with his daughters in a Melbourne park. The mishap forced the game’s prevailing superman to undergo knee surgery and skip Indian Wells and the hard court season.
As for Indian Wells, Venus Williams announced she would be returning to the BNP Paribas Open for the first time in 15 years.
Then came the passing of tennis’ greatest chronicler and popularizer Bud Collins. But sadly, our mourning was quickly replaced by the shock admission by Sharapova that she’d failed a drug test.
Never before had a tennis star at the very top of the game fallen so suddenly. Martina Hingis was suspended for two years, but when her penalty came, she was no longer a top-tier player. Long ago, Andre Agassi used crystal meth, but suffered no penalty. Richard Gasquet suffered a provisional suspension which subsequently was lifted, and Marin Cilic was suspended, but neither are superstars of the same caliber as Maria.
Of course, there were questions. How could the world’s foremost sport businesswoman, who is known for her efficiency, or someone on her team, not check out a memo from the WTA on banned substances? How much did her use of a drug that wasn’t approved by the FDA help her performance? Was it okay to use a performance-enhancing drug that wasn’t approved by the FDA, even though officially it was legal until this January?
Was Sharapova’s story true – that it was a simple oversight, in other words, negligence?
WADA is reportedly considering over 50 cases similar to Maria’s. Since she is a superstar in a sport where superstars are everything, will she be given lenient treatment, or will they throw the book at her?
Almost certainly, she will miss the Olympics, which are so important to her. We predict she will get at least a year’s suspension. Already it’s cost her millions, and certainly already has to be one of the more expensive mistakes in sports history.
With a start of the year like this in tennis, will the sport balance it out with a prevailing calm? We doubt it – it’s a packed calendar this season, and an Olympic year, in which some iconic players have been pointing toward retirement. But knowing our sport, controversies could go through the roof, which only makes sense, since for the first time in history, a major American outdoor tournament will have one – the US Open’s high-tech $100 million ceiling.