Part two of my talk with Rob. H, a Maria Sharapova devotee from Washington, D.C. (Click here to read part one.)
I like the Hillary Clinton comparison. I'd never thought of that, but it fits (maybe you have to be from D.C. to think of that one). The hated ice queen becomes a figure of sympathy once she's vulnerable. As I said, I've come to like Maria more since 2008, but from the start I didn’t find her irritating. I know no one talks about loving the way she plays, and when she's bad she can play some really ugly tennis; but when she's good, I like to watch her laser shots, especially her backhand, find the corners. I think one reason she isn’t beloved among tennis aficionados is that she doesn’t play with a ton of variety or touch (though, as with Nadal, she has more than meets the eye at first). People I know love to watch, say Agnieszka Radwanska, because of her variety, but they disdain Maria. There’s a general aesthetic prejudice against “baseline bashing,” but with some of those so-called bashers, such as Maria, I can’t help but be amazed by their combination of power and accuracy. Plenty of people speak up for the appeal of serve-and-volley tennis and one-handed backhands, but few speak for the baseliners. To me, the trajectory of a ball belted from corner to corner can be as beautiful as a perfectly carved drop volley.
Sharapova is something of an odd case as a star. She doesn’t seem to inspire mass love, a la Fed or Rafa or Serena, but at the same time her presence elevates the sport in the media. NBC may have decided to show the women’s Olympic gold medal match live if Serena had been playing, say, Kvitova, but there was no question they were going to do it when Maria was involved. The best thing about Sharapova, though, is that you know you’re not just watching a pretty face. No one can criticize her for being all style and no substance. Anna Kournikova and Ana Ivanovic both let the extra scrutiny that came with their looks get to them, but not Sharapova. Plus, she takes losses well. Her disappointment comes through in her face and in the slump or her shoulders, which humanizes her, but she doesn’t make excuses—that would be too weak for her, and go against her pro’s pro persona.
(Not that the woman is perfect. My main complaint about Maria is that her toughness can turn into snippiness in the press room. Even when she wins, she can’t help but roll her eyes at a dumb question. At a certain point, I think the pros have to learn to live with those questions, because they’re inevitable.)
Lately, I’ve been wondering about this idea that Sharapova is too much of a “brand,” that she’s allowed herself to be too much of a marketing tool and meal ticket for IMG. There's no doubt that money has been a huge motivation, but is what she’s done any different from what Federer has done with IMG over the years? Instead of being criticized, he’s generally lauded for improving his look and his image and creating an RF brand that will outlive his playing days. Maria is seen as plastic and opportunistic, while Roger is seen as slick and smart. Would you say there’s a gender bias in the way we judge these things?
Finally, though, for you as a fan this must have been a gratifying season. What has 2012 felt like to you watching Maria?
Even though I'm fairly young, I’ve been a sports fan for longer than the Internet and social media have been constant presences in public opinion-making. So when Maria first got famous, my only real indication of the tennis world’s reaction to her was that my friends and I would watch in disbelief as she hammered the ball from side to side, rarely missing when she was at her best. I had to assume that anyone who has ever picked up a tennis racquet knew how impossible it was to hit the shots she was hitting with consistency, and that therefore cranking winners from the baseline would be seen similarly by everyone. Because she started appearing in every third commercial and magazine ad shortly afterward, I assumed the rest of the world agreed.
Of course, I know better than that now—like we've been talking about, there is definitely a disconnect between her media popularity and her popularity with devoted tennis fans. Some disparage baseline bashers like kids levying charges of “button mashing” against their friends after losing at a video game, implying that no real skill is involved. To some extent, hitting a winner from several feet behind the baseline does involve luck—that’s why those who have tried to copy Maria’s game plan have been far less consistent and therefore less successful, and that’s what makes Maria's consistency all the more impressive to me.
That’s the thing about players who capture the public attention and media focus, though—winning enough Slams to be a top player in the sport’s history does not automatically attract fans at a commensurate level just because the game style is successful. It’s all the other things besides game—image, fame, rivalries, grunting, candy companies, living the American dream but representing Russia, etc.—that determine whether a person is a fan or not of a player. Tennis players don't exist in an on-court vacuum, and the coverage by the media certainly doesn’t either, so that’s natural and reasonable. And, in the case of Maria, I’d say it’s undeniable that those non-tennis factors cause serious tennis fans to fall more often into the “not” category than any other top player in recent memory, while casual fans seem to like her a lot. Add to that dichotomy that there actually are serious tennis fans who are obsessed with her, and I think it makes her one of the most interesting fan club subjects out there. But, of course, I’m pretty biased.
I think the topic of her looks, her branding, and her gender are all connected. I definitely agree that she’s backed up the media-friendly looks with upper echelon success in the game—this is a woman who got famous for beating Serena Williams in a Wimbledon final. There are no worries that media attention will derail her focus (would a derailing train even accomplish that task?), but I don’t think we can say she's completely tuned-out the discussion. She obviously plays the game to her economic benefit, and her obsession with fashion is just so convenient for a 6-foot-3 blonde, but I don’t think she’d change if all the endorsements and media attention dried up tomorrow.
I think the fact that she’s simultaneously unaffected by and fueled by the shallower aspects of her fame is a product of your final point, that she’s been the ultimate branding machine since age 17. To her credit, despite the criticism that she’s been too branded, it hasn’t seemed to have affected her life, and her life hasn't affected her branding. I agree that she's no more branded than Federer—who went from being someone I couldn’t have imagined wearing anything fancier than jeans from Benetton to someone who is seen as the height of refinement and culture.
But I’m not sure that the difference in perception on the branding issue is any more about gender than any other aspect of Maria. I would argue that everything we’ve discussed about media and fan perception of her is equally affected by the fact that she's a woman, and that it’s very difficult to define exactly how great of an effect her gender has on those aspects. There aren’t really any other sports where females and males are directly compared, and the perceptions of the top players are so individualized that it’s hard to know if a lot of double standards we observe in society are at play in media coverage, or if people really just think Maria is a mirthless corporate shill while Federer was born in a “15” jacket.
But I think that gender clearly plays a role. Juan Martin del Potro (far less successful than Maria, far less consistent with his atomic bomb forehand) is revered for hitting winners at will, while Maria is a “ball basher.” Bjorn Borg was admired for his calm during the storm, the Scandinavian glacier water in his veins, while Maria is a robot whose controlling father must have repressed her human emotions. John McEnroe was...John McEnroe, while Serena is castigated every time she raises her voice. A WTA set with more than two breaks is a sign that the women’s tour is in chaos and populated by nervous choke artists who lack serves, while the same thing in an ATP set is a sign that the men’s tour is in a golden age of depth and competitive spirit. Sharapova finally wins another Grand Slam after surgery, and is accused of being fake because she’s fallen to her knees in the same way after all four, while Rafa biting all of his trophies shows he’s just a playful kid at heart.
Excuse the comparisons...they’re obviously not exactly parallel situations, but I think that proves the point I’m trying to make—we’ll never be able to figure out what would have happened if Maria Sharapova had been born Vlad Sharapov and had an identical career, but it seems pretty clear that gender plays some role in media and fan perception. I think it’s true for all of the female players with notable media presence (which, at this point, is pretty much just Serena and Maria).
As for what this season has meant, I would describe it as a relief. Every year that passed since the surgery was supposed to be the year that Maria got back to winning the big titles. Instead, every year seemed to add more pressure and concern as a fan. Add to that the fact that her matches have been played on the edge of a knife—at any moment, three double faults can sink the set—and the summer of 2011 had two near-misses in Grand Slams, and it was getting hard to watch. Not that I would ever give up—I’ve learned too much from Maria’s clenched fist slapping her thigh—but it was taking years off my life.
Still, there was always an upward swing. Her fight and focus only increased as the challenges mounted, attributes that are enough to earn wins for a player of Maria’s level against almost any WTA player, no matter how many times she drops serve. Fans were starting to cheer for her in her post-surgery career, as we’ve discussed earlier, and frustrated commentators were starting to view her as one of the few hopeful choices for legitimacy atop the tour. Although the real story of the season is that Serena has again asserted her otherworldly dominance, Maria has also had a career year with unprecedented consistency. Other than an early loss to Angelique Kerber in the Paris indoor tournament in February, a quarterfinal loss to Serena in Madrid, and a fourth-round loss to Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon, Maria has made at least to the final of every tournament she’s entered. I honestly didn’t know if she’d make another Slam final after Wimbledon 2011, given the way that season ended so meekly, so making the final in Australia for her first tournament was a hugely pleasant surprise. Would it have been nice if she could have won some more of the finals, especially Miami against Radwanska? Sure. But after the hard-court season, she hasn’t lost to anyone other than Serena twice and Lisicki at Wimbledon, going undefeated on red clay (I know, really) and, of course, winning her fourth Slam and completing the career Slam.
Her reaction to all four may have been exactly the same, but as a fan, the most recent was the sweetest. Maybe it’s because it’s been so long since Australia 2008, maybe it’s because there have been so many lows since that time, maybe it’s because, for the first time, there were more people pulling for her to make it back to the top, maybe it’s just because my fandom has grown throughout the years...but for whatever reason, it’s been a great year.
For more Fan Club chats, visit Steve Tignor's page.