Meet Yuri Sharapov.
He’s the father of Russian tennis player Maria Sharapova, the country’s top-ranked contender, and this is him earlier this year in Australia, while his daughter was playing a match at the year’s first Grand Slam event against World #1 Justine Henin, one of the classiest and most sizzlingly talented players the game has ever produced.
Take a good look at his photograph. Do you begin to see why Russia has the fifth-highest murder rate of any nation on the planet?
When his daughter defeated Henin, who would retire from the game entirely a few months later and whose life has been plagued with brutal personal tragedies over which she’d bravely triumphed with the greatest of class, Yuri covered his head in a military camouflage hood, donned dark glasses and, appearing just like the famous American criminal the “Unabomber,” stood in the stands and repeatedly made horrific slashing gestures with his hand across his throat.
Suddenly, the image his daughter had tried to project, one neatly summarized by the image shown above, shattered into a million pieces. But those who know Sharapova were hardly surprised. One Australian paper said: “Sharapov’s belligerence, captured by a camera he knew was in his face, belongs in a professional wrestling ring not beside a tennis court.” Yuri is too Russian even for many Russians themselves. French Open winner Anastasia Myskina, Russia’s first true champion, once threatened to stand down from Fed Cup if Sharapova was selected — because of the antics of her father. “If she joins our team next season you won’t see me there, for sure,” Myskina said. Countrywoman Svetlana Kuznetsova had similar thoughts, and last year she was booted off the Russian national team after repeatedly cancelling her scheduled matches due to alleged injuries — the same thing she did after yet another humiliating loss earlier this year.
Though Sharapova calls herself a Russian, she lives in the United States and learned her game there having arrived in Florida as a young child, and she spends virtually no time in her “home” country. In essence, she’s simultaneously betraying two different countries. A study of her career will reveal that she’s been the luckiest player of either gender ever to step on the court, first somehow managing to travel from Siberia to Florida for tennis lessons and then winning her first grand slam after being saved from elimination by a rain delay in the middle of a match where she was being thrashed. Her record is pockmarked by humiliating losses to much lower-ranked players, as was the case for instance the last time she played a tournament in Russia.
Not that Sharapova is the lone Russian offender. There isn’t a single Russian player who’s a legitimate athletic star to rival Henin or the American Williams sisters; their matches are characterized by boring, lackluster skills and a total lack of personality. On the men’s side, things are little better. Russia’s top-ranked male player, Nikolai Davydenko, is mired in scandal and investigation after it was alleged he threw a match in order to collect on secret wagers, betting against himself like the old Chicago White Sox. Say it ain’t so, Nikolai!
When Henin resigned from the game, Sharapova got the #1 ranking in women’s tennis by default. In her first tournament wielding the ranking, this week’s French Open, though, she put herself in a position to lose it. Set up so she couldn’t possibly lose, she did so anyway.
After achieving the “#1 ranking” upon the resignation of Henin, Sharapova was given a draw in France that allowed her to avoid, in all likelihood, the need to face a top-20 non-Russian opponent until the finals. It was an amazing stroke of luck, but all too common over Sharapova’s career. Both of the dangerous Serbians and both of the dangerous Americans were placed on the opposite side of the draw from Sharapova, whose pathway to the finals was impeded only by the lowly likes of fellow Russians Svetlana Kuznetsova, Vera Zvonareva and Elena Dementieva, the serveless wonder. Other than Sharapova, no Russian woman has ever won a grand slam tournament except by beating another Russian in the finals.
In other words, the luckiest player in the world seemed right back on form. Why, it was almost as if the tournament organizers had stacked the draw specifically to put Sharapova’s pretty, marketable face in the finals.
Should she have won the tournament, this America-trained, America-resident athlete would have reminded many of how Russia recently won a soccer title with a Dutch coach and a Ukrainian star over woefully lame competition through the luck of the draw. Not exactly a case study in self sufficiency or success by Russia.
But in fact, Shamapova [sic] didn’t even manage to reach the quarter-finals, winning only two games in the decisive third set of her fourth-round match with a non-top-ten seed and putting Ana Ivanovic in perfect position to strip away her happenstance #1 by winning the tournament, allowing her to hold the top spot for even less time than the puny period she had it on her first go-round (she has never won a tournament while holding the #1 ranking).
The presence of Russians in the second week of a grand-slam tournament is cause for nothing but gloom among knowledgeable tennis fans these days. They are, quite simply, nearly unwatchable, a toxin in the blood stream of the game. Sharapova’s play at in Paris was abysmal, she was simply been lucky to get through the first week, struggling to eke out three-set wins against unknown competition, and on Saturday the American commentators bemoaned at length that all the interest was gone after the disappearance of the game’s three great current stars, Henin and the Williams sisters. Just watch the expression on any true fan’s face when you propose she watch a quarter-finals match at the French Open between Dinara Safin and Svetlana Kuznetsova, and you’ll see a visage that tells you they’d rather watch bowling — or grass growing.
Russians are, in short, killing women’s tennis with unprecedented displays of crass boorishness and lame, boring, unwatchable play. It’s a simple as that, and Sharapova is leading the way.
The French crowd saw it all clearly enough. The Associated Press reported:
For Sharapova, things really began to fall apart when she served while trailing 3-2 in the third set. At 15-love, Safina’s forehand landed near a line, and Sharapova missed a backhand. Sharapova asked the chair umpire to check the mark from Safina’s shot, drawing scattered noise from the crowd, and the call stood. On the next point, Sharapova botched a sitter and put a forehand into the net—drawing cheers, generally considered a breach of etiquette among tennis spectators. Another short ball came at 15-30, and perhaps wary of another miscue, Sharapova sent it back cautiously, allowing Safina to pound a forehand. That prompted a scream from Sharapova. As play proceeded, her yells became louder and louder as she berated herself, at least once with colorful language. Her departure from the French Open was filled with sound and fury: her stroke-accompanying shrieks, her self-loathing shouts between points and the spectators’ hearty boos and high-pitched whistles that ushered the No. 1-seeded woman to the exit.
That’s right — the French fans booed her off the court. The #1 player in the world! Those who love the game and care about its future could only gape in slack-jawed horror. It’s not the first time she’s been booed off the court, either. On another occasion, she stood impassively as an opponent lay writing on the court in agony after incurring an injury mid-match.
Air-brushed to perfection as she appears in the middle of this page, Sharapova is more than a little impressive physically. But ask any tennis fan about her, and the only compliment you’re likely to hear is what a great little piece of ass she is. This is the second time she’s risen to the #1 ranking, but she’s been unable to hold it for any length of time and has never won a tournament in that capacity. Her one-dimensional game hardly inspires fascination among knowledgeable enthusiasts, and her cold-as-ice, spoiled brat demeanor inspires only contempt. Simply put, it’s bad for the game to have a player who needs to rely on cheesecake to hold interest occupy the prime position in the sport. Fans don’t pay large sums to ogle the female anatomy on a tennis court; sweaty booths in porno venues do well enough for that.
And she’s bad for feminism, too. Sharapova has taken the lead in demanding that women be paid the same as men for grand slam tennis tournament play, but she conveniently fails to ask for the right to play the same amount of tennis. In grand slam play, men must win three sets to take a match, but the women still only need to play two. A men’s match could easily involve two or three times as much tennis for the spectator, yet Sharapova wants them to pay the same for both performances. Looks like she sets quite a lot of store by her cute little butt, doesn’t it?
Strip away the air-brushing, and take a look at Sharapova as she appears at right, while speaking to the press after her pathetic third-set performance against Safina and the childish, graceless, petulant display that followed. Looks like a different person, doesn’t she? I started out my blogging career writing about what a “cosmic fraud” Sharpova is, and I’ve only seen things get worse in the two years since then. You can read the full litany of her misadventures here.
I can only ask: Will the real Maria Sharapova please stand up? Or maybe, better yet, will she please just go away?
But actually, the reason I write about Sharapova isn’t really to save women’s tennis, though it clearly does need some saving. It’s rather because she’s the perfect microcosm for Russia itself, a country that relies far to much on the illusion of success rather than the real thing, beguiling the world with curvaceous oil revenues and buxom nuclear missiles which paper over deep social problems and aggressive imperialism. Without serious reform, both will ultimately end up in the dustbin of history.