What if it Had Been Serena?

A familiar sight. (Photo: Susan Mullane, USA TODAY Sports)

On Monday, the tennis world was bracing itself for an announcement. Maria Sharapova, probably the most famous female tennis player in the world, had called a press conference. Rumours were rife. Was she taking time out for an injury? Was she retiring from the sport altogether? Given her recent run of bad luck, both seemed plausible.

What happened instead though, was totally unexpected. A sombre Sharapova revealed to the world that she had failed a routine drugs test. The reaction was predictably explosive — and that got a few people thinking. What if it had been Serena Williams?

It’s no secret that the tennis world doesn’t appreciate Serena Williams as much as they should. Pundits and commentators will talk about her not being as well-loved as some of the other players on the tour, even her own sister, Venus. Admired, yes. Adored? Hmm. Not by everyone. It’s her aggression on the court, her confidence, her refusal to put up with ridiculous questions in post-match pressers. It’s all rubbish, of course. Serena is funny, gracious, intelligent — the kind of girl you could talk to for ages and laugh with until the early hours. Yes, she is aggressive and extraordinarily confident when she wields a racquet. It’s how she’s won 21 major titles. It’s how she’s dominated a sport that often doesn’t give her the respect she deserves.

The beginning of a rivalry, 2004. (Photo: ANJA NIEDRINGHAUS/Associated Press/Associated Press)

Sharapova is by no means the dominant player of her era. She’s had some absolutely stunning victories, of course. Winning Wimbledon at the age of 17 is the one we all remember. Establishing herself as a great clay court player and lifting the trophy at Roland Garros twice was a great feat too — especially after so many injury woes. She’s a great athlete, and has done a lot for the popularity of not only the WTA tour, but female sport in general. Her revelation that she’d been taking a drug that had been made a prohibited substance this year shocked everyone.

For the last 10 years, Sharapova had been prescribed Mildronate (or Meldonium, as it’s otherwise known) for a variety of health issues. The picture of remorse, she stood at the podium in a hotel lobby in downtown LA and accepted full responsibility for what she’d done. She wasn’t aware that the drug she’d been taking for so long had been declared a performance enhancing substance by the World Anti Doping Authority at the beginning of the year. At the Australian Open, she failed a drugs test — just after she’d lost to you guessed it, Serena Williams. Saying that she’s had a bad start to 2016 would be putting it mildly.

The rivalry between Serena and Maria is hard to get your head around sometimes. On the tennis court, Serena dominates. She’s won 19 of their 21 meetings, with Sharapova’s last victory coming in 2004 — the year she became a superstar. Off the court though, it’s Sharapova who comes out on top. She’s been the highest earning female athlete in the world since 2006, raking in far more through endorsements than tournament winnings. Serena isn’t exactly struggling when it comes to sponsorship, but the fact that Sharapova earns so much more than the best tennis player on the planet seems a little odd. Of course, we all know why. Sharapova is beautiful, with a face, figure and personality that has had potential sponsors falling over themselves to work with her. Serena is awe-inspiringly beautiful too, strong and beguiling. Yet here, in the world of commercial earnings, she falls short. Why? Well, it’s pretty obvious. Maria is widely loved by the public. Serena is not. Race, western-centric beauty standards and views on how women should behave all play into that.

When Sharapova made her big announcement, people began to wonder how the world would have reacted if it had been Serena Williams admitting to falling foul of anti-doping laws. It’s something that I’ve discussed with friends and fellow tennis fans. We all unanimously agreed that it would have been a bloodbath. After all, Serena has fallen short when it comes to public opinion plenty of times already. Yes, she’s sometimes crossed the line, and there have been incidents we’d all like to forget. Most of the time though, it’s her perceived ‘attitude’ and strong, muscular body that attracts the critics.

You can imagine the headlines now. The vindication that many tennis fans would have felt. The outpouring of hate on social media. The finest player of her generation is a fraud! We were right! I knew there was a reason I didn’t like her. That attitude, that body — I knew that there was something off. Serena’s always attracted unfair criticism, and it’s not hard to imagine that she’d be hounded out of the sport before even being banned.

Although Sharapova has been dropped by a number of sponsors and criticised by prominent players, namely Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray — she’s got off pretty lightly in some respects too. Her racquet sponsor, Head, has announced that they would consider extending her contract. The fact that her lawyers are going to push for a ban of one year or less says a lot about how highly they think she is regarded. It’s the public opinion that’s the most telling though. People have taken to Twitter in their droves to show their support, and she’s largely been met with sympathy. It’s hard to imagine the world No.1 being met with such affection outside of her already established fan base.

As for Serena, when asked about Maria’s doping ban, she was gracious. She praised her old rival for being honest; and said that she was brave in taking responsibility for what she’d done. There was no malice — just sadness that the sport had been thrown into disrepute. There was no declaration of an imminent catfight, no incendiary remarks. She was calm, composed and compassionate. Maybe it’s time that we all started to extend that same courtesy to her — not just the poster girl of the sport.