Sex appeal solves a problem like Maria
Tennis pin-up Sharapova received a two-year drug ban, but in the money stakes it's still her advantage
How do you solve a problem like Maria? That was the question that the tennis world asked itself all last week after its golden girl - Maria Sharapova - was handed a two-year ban for testing positive for Meldonium at the Australian Open this year. It was billed as a huge blow, both for Sharapova personally, and for tennis. The Russian superstar is 29 now, inching into the twilight of her career, and she doesn't have two years to spare if she wants to win another big title.
The women's tour is so top heavy that you might reasonably characterise it as 'Serena and the seven dwarves'; Serena's sister, Venus, and Sharapova are the only other active players who have certifiable Hall of Fame careers. And perhaps, it was surmised, the whole thing is a little unfair and ripe for appeal; Meldonium is performance-enhancing and Sharapova did seem to keep her use of it a secret from almost everyone. But the drug was only officially banned from January 1 of this year and the player, who had been taking it without penalty for almost a decade, only tested positive a few weeks later. It seemed churlish, in that context, to put her in the same category as bug-eyed sprinters and cyclists.
Lost somewhere in all the brouhaha was one surprising fact that might have prompted you to dry your eyes for her: the ruling will hardly make a dint in Sharapova's earnings, which long ago untethered themselves from her on-court activities. Even with the ban, most of her sponsors, including her racket manufacturer Head, Evian, Porsche and several others, have stood by her. Nike, which looked like it was backing away, is back on her side again. On her enforced break, Sharapova has been promoting her line of sweets - Sugarpova - and hanging out with Chelsea Handler. It hasn't exactly been sackcloth and ashes, you could say. In fact if the Court of Arbitration for Sport dispensed with the legalese and gave its judgement in plain spoken truth, it might have said: "We hereby free you from the increasingly tiresome activity of sweating on a tennis court and give you free reign to enjoy life as a spokesmodel, chat-show guest and full-time leggy blonde."
Sharapova won big and won early - she started out conquering Wimbledon and Serena Williams as a 17-year-old. But her career also showed how forehands and backhands are less important than being tall and conventionally beautiful. For the past decade she has been the top earning female athlete in the world, even while Serena Williams - whom she never again beat after 2004 - slowly inched her way toward becoming the greatest of all time. Serena has her own compelling story - a black girl from the wrong side of the tracks rising to the pinnacle of a country club sport. But, as far as endorsements went, it was all no match for tall and blonde, and you can be sure that if it had been Serena who had tested positive for a banned substance, the corporations would have dropped her like a shot. Not even Tiger Woods, for all his crossover appeal, has received the same benefit of the doubt as Sharapova.
From the arse-scratching Athena girl to the Lolita-like Anna Kournikova, tennis has always been as much a pretty-girl pageant as an athletic endeavour. And there were always winners and losers in this pageant - most glaringly illustrated when the winners on the court couldn't catch a break off court. In the 1980s, Martina Navratilova, who went on to set a record for most Wimbledon titles in 1990, played in unmarked clothes and shoes - because she was openly lesbian corporations wouldn't touch her. When she faced then-phenom Jennifer Capriati in the 1991 Wimbledon quarter final, the youngster - still just 15 - already far eclipsed the legend in terms of earnings. Capriati, winsome and new, was seen as the heir apparent to Chris Evert, who, three years after her retirement, was still making more than Navratilova in the endorsement stakes.
Sharapova is a product of a system that ostensibly aims to develop athletes but never loses sight of the fact that their earning potential is inextricably linked to their cuteness and whiteness. When sports marketing agents scout junior prospects in tennis, they size them up on their likelihood to develop into pin-ups with athletic skills, which is fairly creepy approach when you think about it, and doesn't apply to male players. In the long term, the corporate interests of the sport would much prefer to develop a Caroline Wozniacki, who is a media and sponsor darling (witness her recent smouldering Esquire photoshoot), despite having never won a big title anywhere, than, say, Svetlana Kuznetsova. You've probably never heard of her - she doesn't have long legs or a notably beautiful face - but she has won multiple Grand Slams in both singles and doubles.
Everyone from the clothing manufacturers to the tennis tour itself colludes in this and it has only become more pronounced over time. There was a time, just a few decades ago, when the female players were just jocks playing a sport, mostly in silence. The clothing manufacturers dressed them like milkmaids. There were no YouTube videos, viewed by millions, entitled things like 'Martina Hingis nipples'. And it all seemed like sport for sport's sake. Today the players wear borderline bikinis and shriek like porn actresses with every strike of the ball. After matches they might be asked to do a pirouette, as Canadian golden girl Genie Bouchard was last year and they might gigglingly oblige, as she did. The tennis tour itself plays both sides of the net, tacitly encouraging the sexualisation the players, leveraging it to increase their marketability, while simultaneously decrying all examples of sexism. There is a conundrum here; tennis tries to sell us the players as models-cum-tennis-players but then complains when they're not taken seriously as athletes. For all the boasts about it being the pre-eminent sport for women, the women's tour is still the poor relation to the men's tour.
Sharapova has always won just enough that she can't be dismissed as a just a pretty face, like Kournikova once was. From a marketing perspective her combination of good results combined with model looks, is preferable to the greatness of a Serena Williams or a Steffi Graf. It sets a template for other sports; it's the reason you could be fooled into thinking that Ronda Rousey is the only woman competing in the UFC.
Sharapova is not popular amongst her peers on the women's tour - several of whom spoke out in the last few months about how rude she is. Last week, Federer, her Nike stablemate, also gave a short shrift to the notion that she deserved clemency if she didn't take Meldonium intentionally. But if she does want to burnish her vast sponsorship income with some on-court earnings she will benefit from the fact that there is life after drug bans in tennis.
Marin Cilic, Martina Hingis and Richard Gasquet resumed their careers after banned substances were found in their systems, although in the latter two cases there was clearly no performance-enhancing elements. Sharapova's age need not be fatal for her career either; 30 was once dirty in tennis but at this year's French Open more than half the players in the men's draw and a third in the women's draw were that age or older. Even if her appeal fails, she can still return at five to midnight and go to the ball. And in the meantime, she will continue to test positive for being the most marketable non-competing athlete in all sports.