The DFR unleashed the snark when news first came down of Maria Sharapova’s failed drug test at the Australian Open, so I suppose there’s an obligation to make some comment on the significance of her two-year suspension for her finding a little too much meldonium on the PED periodic table. So here it is:
There’s no significance at all, because Sharapova was already on the way out as a major player anyway, even with the help–if any–of her drug of choice.
That assessment may seem harsh, given that Sharapova won the French Open in 2012 and 2014, but keep in mind the realities of being a top-tier tennis player, as has been personified by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the last couple of years, and every single champion in the sport’s history: there’s a peak, and then there’s a long, lingering slide from that peak down through competitiveness to early exits to being finished.
Sharapova was already showing the signs of stepping off the competitiveness rung down to the level of regular early exits. She was regularly making finals and semifinals at the Australian and French the last five years (seven in those ten tournaments), but not so much at Wimbledon (only one semifinals appearance in the last four years), and she’s been mostly a ghost at the US Open, missing two of the last three tournaments due to injury. Repeated injuries late in the season–breaking down after the grind of the early tournaments–are what you would expect of a player on the downside of a career, and Sharapova has been fitting that bill lately, without much help from the meldonium or anything else she might have taken, apparently.
So Maria looks to be winding down. The only real significance of her presumed two-year absence–the suspension may not survive her appeal–is that Sharapova was the only apparent, legitimate challenger in the women’s game to Serena Williams…whom she could not beat anyway.
Without even the figment of a challenger now, the game is left with…what exactly? Players like Angelique Kerber, who wins a surprising victory over Williams at the Australian and then proceeds to get punted in the first round of the very next major? Do you feel like laying any money down on Garbiñe Muguruza living up to her French Open win in London, or anywhere else down the road? Didn’t think so.
Between this state of affairs in the women’s game, and the lack of consistent challengers to Novak Djokovic on the men’s side–Rafael Nadal just withdrew from Wimbledon, continuing his own slide down the ladder–tennis is looking profoundly not interesting these days. (Roger Federer is claiming he’s finally healthy and raring to go again, but for now that has to be a see-it-to-believe-it item. Let’s hope it’s for real.)
Then again, if Djokovic and Williams also start stepping down the ladder sometime soon, perhaps the field will be wide open again. Serena has dropped two straight majors now, so maybe the ladies are about to get exciting again.
Maybe. But at this point, whether Sharapova goes away or not, it’s the sport–not the individual players–that needs performance enhancement, through a big dose of competitiveness. The younger players need to start stepping up, in a big way. Last decade’s darlings are not going to make this thing worth watching again.