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A complicated competitor: Maria Sharapova's cloudy, unresolved legacy

A complicated competitor: Maria Sharapova's cloudy, unresolved legacy

The 32-year-old Russian, who retired from tennis on Wednesday, always came to win, but may have been at her best in defeat.

This has been an era of greater and greater glory in tennis. The older the top players get, it seems, the better they become.

Once upon a time—before March 7, 2016, to be exact—we might have expected a similarly satisfying fate for Maria Sharapova. The Russian was one of the game’s grittiest competitors, one who had survived significant injuries when she was younger, and willed herself to success on her worst surface, red clay. She couldn’t beat the best player of her generation, Serena Williams, but with a career Grand Slam to her name, Sharapova had carved out a place in the game’s history books for herself. She turned 29 in 2016, and she hadn’t won a major title in two years, but she was still in the Top 10, and there was little reason to think this most willful of athletes couldn’t scale the WTA mountain again in her 30s. She seemed to be made for the challenge.

But there wouldn’t be any final hurrahs or Indian Summers for Sharapova, the way there have been for so many of her peers. On Wednesday, she announced her retirement at 32, after years of injuries and increasingly frustrating, stop-and-start returns to the court.

There won’t be a farewell tour or a final send-off for Sharapova. Instead of going out on top, or near the top, she exits with a ranking of No. 373. Instead of being remembered solely for her skill and her will, she leaves behind a cloudy, unresolved legacy, one that will likely always exist in the eye of the beholder.

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Sharapova titled her 2017 autobiography Unstoppable, but in reality she had already been stopped in her tracks a year earlier. In March 2016, in a Los Angeles hotel ballroom covered by what she correctly described as a “fairly ugly carpet,” Sharapova announced that she had tested positive for the recently banned substance meldonium. She would serve a 15-month suspension, and as a player essentially never recover. After coming back in 2017, Sharapova won one tournament, in Tianjin, and reached one Grand Slam quarterfinal, at the 2018 French Open. Last year she lost in the first round at Wimbledon and the US Open, two tournaments she won as a teenager.

So how should we think of Sharapova, with her playing days officially behind her? As one of the sport’s foremost fighters, or its foremost example of the power of performance-enhancing drugs? Is her rapid post-comeback decline evidence that she wasn’t the same player without meldonium? Or was it simply the logical end for an injury-prone athlete? Even Sharapova’s doping history can be seen two ways. She took a performance-enhancing drug for a decade (she said she began using it because of a family history of heart conditions and diabetes), but for almost all of that time, the drug was legal in tennis.

How you answer those questions will probably depend on how you felt about Sharapova—her shriek, her shivery strut, her slam-bang game—all along. I found a lot to admire in her. I admired her total commitment. From the moment she walked into an arena—upright, poker-faced, with purposeful little steps—she set the tone, and her opponents had to react to her. I admired the way, despite her many endorsements and cover shoots, she was a competitor first—she liked her job. I admired her point-by-point persistence, which never flagged even through the longest, most draining contests; her record in marathon matches is a testament to that. I liked her two-handed backhand drive and her one-handed backhand drop; her game wasn’t as unsubtle as its reputation. I liked the respectfully businesslike way she shook hands at the net, win or lose; drive-bys and hugs weren’t her style. I admired how, despite her 2-20 record against Serena, and her interminable streak of defeats at her hands, Sharapova never seemed embarrassed or daunted by what had become a spectacle of futility. She kept trying, kept losing, and kept coming back for more.

Sharapova won 36 titles and five majors, and spent 21 weeks at No. 1. But what I liked most about her was the way she lost. In her post-defeat press conferences, she was thoughtful and often funny, and rarely settled for a canned answer. As her “fairly ugly carpet” comment showed, Sharapova could keep her sense of humor even when disaster struck. In Indian Wells in 2011, she played dreadfully in a one-sided final loss to Caroline Wozniacki (when things went wrong for Sharapova, they often stayed wrong, no matter how hard she tried to right them). She was predictably down at the start of her presser, but talking seemed to help, and her answers grew longer, deeper, and funnier. By the end, she was ruminating on her childhood and joking that she “didn’t have the guts” to smash her racquet.

That night, during her loss to Wozniacki, I had thought to myself, “There’s no way Sharapova is winning another Slam.” By the time her presser was over, and I saw how quickly she had rebounded emotionally, I found myself revising that opinion. The following spring, she won the French Open, and then won it again two years later.

Sharapova will be remembered in many different ways. I won’t forget that she took meldonium and was punished for it. But I’ll also remember her as a complete competitor, one who always came to win, and who took her losses like a champ.