Monday 24 October 2016

Nauseating Sharapova love-in discredits tennis

Oliver Brown

Published 12/10/2016 | 02:30

Maria Sharapova) and John McEnroe high-five during their charity match in Las Vegas. Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Maria Sharapova) and John McEnroe high-five during their charity match in Las Vegas. Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Tough justice, tennis-style. A few high-fives, the obligatory selfie with Sir Elton John, and some priceless publicity amid a blaze of Las Vegas neon.

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This is the savage punishment that the sport sees fit to bestow upon Maria Sharapova, who, one could be forgiven for forgetting, is not even halfway through a 15-month ban for doping. Tennis hit-and-giggles are tough watches at the best of times, but doubly so when they feature this tarnished, incorrigibly entitled swan.

Hers was a performance more carefully calibrated than Hillary Clinton's on debate night. Cosying up to John McEnroe, chewing the fat with Martina Navratilova, and a little back-and-forth with Andy Roddick: this was less a benefit for the Elton John Aids Foundation than a gala reception for Sharapova herself.

One would have thought she was returning from a sabbatical of self-discovery, not interrupting a suspension for using a banned drug five times at her last Grand Slam tournament.

"Oh, but she's doing it for charity!" is not a valid response to this gruesome spectacle. At a time when Sharapova should have the decency to step away from the Caesar's Palace arclights and take her medicine she is profiting from the exposure her presence brings.

Again, this is as much the fault of tennis as her own, by affording her the opportunity to milk her brand at non-sanctioned tournaments. A ban should mean exactly that, with all loopholes closed off.

In keeping with the saying that "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas", there was precious little acknowledgment of Sharapova's past indiscretions as she glided back into the big-time.

McEnroe, Navratilova and Roddick rolled out the red carpet for her as if she were a long-lost friend. Which, of course, is precisely what she is. Tennis is a mates' club, a cabal, an environment in which the slightest criticism of a superstar is regarded as sacrilege.

McEnroe fulminated recently that tennis players were far too pleasant to one another. "I can't advocate people not liking each other but I'd prefer it," he said. If he is to be the change that he seeks, then he might start by refusing to usher a woman like Sharapova back into the fold so easily.

Tennis, after all, is a sport with a demonstrable problem in its lack of anti-doping rigour. So, McEnroe and his fellow grandees might care to reflect on what message it sends when they gush over Sharapova, the highest-profile transgressor in the sport's history.

Oh, fear not, all for a good cause, they would counter. If only this were so. At a time when Sharapova should be serving her time away from her sport, she is revelling in the attention lavished upon her by admirers and apologists. It is a nauseating circus, which does tennis every discredit. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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