Maria Sharapova is retiring from tennis. That’s a jarring sentence, for a couple of reasons. On the one hand, you could be forgiven for thinking Sharapova retired five years ago; on the other, you could be forgiven for thinking she planned to go on grinding out the last act of her career until the heat death of the sun. She hasn’t been a credible title challenger in years, but the combination of her celebrity (massive, both inside and outside tennis) and her personal drivenness (seemingly strong enough to light a small city) kept her going in a kind of parallel WTA universe that only occasionally intersected with the real thing.
You rarely saw her play in recent years; if you did, she was getting trounced 6-1, 6-1 by Serena Williams after somehow being given a U.S. Open night match in Arthur Ashe Stadium. What you saw instead was a quantum bubble of content she generated herself. Workout videos posted to her Instagram Stories. Endless inspirational quotes from her 2017 memoir (she called it Unstoppable, a title that came to seem both searingly ironic and literally correct). Viral commentary-box cameos. Brass-tacks statements about never giving up. The more she seemed gone, the more it seemed she’d never left.
Has there ever been a player more at home inside that kind of paradox than Sharapova? She’s been a walking disconnect on so many levels. She built a stratospherically successful brand as an emblem of tennis glamour at the same time as her dogged, plodding, counterpunching game could look like a grunting antithesis of style. In her later career, she adjusted her brand to reflect more blue-collar sports virtues—hard work, competitiveness, refusal to surrender—while simultaneously stepping up her self-presentation as a sophisticated citizen of the world, a fixture at art shows and international fashion weeks. She wore Valentino to the Vanity Fair Oscars Party; she played workmanlike tennis; she sold candy at Hudson News. We are all creatures of contradiction in this life, but it’s rare to encounter an athlete whose profile is 50 percent Princess Grace of Monaco and 50 percent Green Bay Packers nose tackle.
She also won five majors and a career Grand Slam, and yet the easiest way to evaluate her career is as a celebrity; it’s tempting, that is, to define her legacy in terms of the sustained brilliance with which she managed the complexities of her own celebrity, leaving out the part where she was once one of the best tennis players alive. That’s another contradiction of a kind, and not really a fair one. Sharapova’s power-baseline game may never have been able to withstand the arrival of a generation of players who were both more powerful and more imaginative, at least not after her shoulder troubles started in 2008. (She was described as “stunned” by Petra Kvitova’s ball-striking after Kvitova crushed her in the Wimbledon final in 2011.) After the controversial two-year suspension from 2016 to 2017 for a positive drug test, she came back a step slower, and she’d never been quick to begin with.
Still, there was a time—from around 2004, say, when she first won Wimbledon, to her swan-song wins at the French Open in 2012 and 2014–when you could never count her out against anyone but Serena. She was too stubborn, too fearless. She had that maddening kind of brick-wall greatness; the ball would come back, and back, and back, and back, each time with a scream of defiance until her opponent finally made a mistake. She hit no. 1 for the first time in 2005 and continued to feature intermittently at the top of the rankings for the next five years. (She’s been no. 1 for a total of 21 weeks, a figure that’s somehow already been eclipsed by both Naomi Osaka and Ashleigh Barty.) Even at her best, though, she always seemed half-outclassed by players she simply willed into submission. She had the psychological makeup of an alpha star and the physical toolkit of an underdog—another contradiction. If you liked sports as ballet, her matches were often very boring. If you liked sports as psychodrama, they seldom were.
I can’t say I’ll miss watching her play, because I haven’t seen her play that much since the Obama era. And I can’t say I’ll miss having her around, because I don’t think she’s going anywhere. The simultaneous publication of her retirement announcement in Vanity Fair and Vogue hints at the enduring power of her fame. Still, the 32-year-old has had one of the more fascinating careers in recent sports memory; that we’re being called on now to remember and appreciate her, even though she’s still right in front of us, only underscores that fact. Pour one out for Maria Sharapova, then, but at the same time, hand her a drink.