That’s the caption that accompanies just about every article about Maria Sharapova these days. On the one hand the phrase may be testament to the fact that many tennis fans hope that this does not end up being the summary statement of Sharapova’s career. On the other hand, there is something about the frequency with which this phrase is trotted out that smacks a bit of desperation, of a kind of fear that this might as well be the encryption on her future tomb stone.
Truly I don’t mean to be morbid. My point mainly is to speculate on whether there might be some kind of psychological effect of being subjected to the same kind of description over and over. The optimistic part of Sharapova or her team may enjoy the reminder of her former glories. The pessimistic side – assuming of course that this exists – may wonder if this statement will end up summarizing her career. What do you think?
Mind you, I can think of a gazillion tennis players who would kill for such a statement to be the description of their career achievements. Vera Zvonareva, for example, has won 12 WTA titles. She has been a finalist at two Slam events but did not win either. She has made it to the Tokyo finals. I suspect that being described as a “three-time Grand Slam winner and former world No. 1” would probably thrill Vera to no end.
But for Maria Sharapova, the expectation has always been so much more. Being a “three-time Grand Slam winner and former world No. 1” just doesn’t cut it. That is not why Nike selected her as worthy of an extreme investment for which you and I are probably still paying. For Sharapova, the trend of expectation has not let down. Au contraire, when she decided to come back from shoulder surgery, folks seemed to expect so much more. You’d swear her name was Serena. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist).
For Sharapova, the pattern of expectation seems to flow as follows. On the days leading up to a tennis event, the media start hysterically (as in, with hysteria, not humor) predicting a Sharapova win. As she gets through the early rounds, the chorus becomes more and more frantic, more and more strident. Accompanying this deafening drum beat are constant reminders that she is a “three-time Grand Slam winner and former world No. 1” – as if there is any chance that we might forget. And then it all goes quiet after she loses.
It was no different this past week in Japan at the Toray Pan Pacific Open. Going into this event, Sharapova was strongly (desperately?) predicted to be the winner. All of the media coverage that I saw focused on her progress through this event. All of the early matches covered featured her playing. I did not see any other match on TV than the ones in which she appeared.
Never mind the fact that she lost to Kimiko Date this time last year. That ignominious defeat got white-washed in the river of expectation. Instead we were conveniently reminded that Sharapova was herself a former Toray champion (she won in 2009). She had earned the honor of expectation.
And then she lost to Kvitova. She twisted her ankle reaching for one of the lefty’s wide shots and crashed to the ground. And then she retired. Next day she announced that the MRI confirmed that the injury was not serious – she would be just fine come Istanbul. As if that wasn’t self-evident.
But for a moment she was given a temporary reprieve from the pressure to succeed. By twisting her ankle, she may have found a face-saving way to silence the drumbeat of reminders that she is... (you know, fill in the blank).