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In Good Conscience

Son and Sharapova as antithetical as the sports they play

What might Maria Sharapova and Son Heung Min have in common?

They play very different sports. One is tall and statuesque and, when she is allowed back on Grand Slam courts, will be a favourite again. Either she will win, or her endorsements will doubtless dwarf those who do.

The other is a team player. Son demonstrated on Thursday against Leicester that he is happy to set up goals for his friend Harry Kane, and ecstatic to score the two goals that give him an all-time record for any Asian, in any league, anywhere.

Sharapova is bigger, and richer, than Son could ever be.

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Yet he has something she may never enjoy. Son is one of the boys. He has that sheer joy of belonging, of being trusted, even loved, in the Tottenham changing room.

Sharapova and Son may never cross paths.

Sharapova is bigger, and richer, than Son could ever be. Yet he has something she may never enjoy. Son is one of the boys. He has that sheer joy of belonging, of being trusted, even loved, in the Tottenham changing room.

The Russian tennis star divides opinions. There are those who will buy (literally) anything she touches, and those who think the French are right to insist there can be no free ride back to the courts of Roland Garros until she earns qualification after her 15-month ban for doping.

The South Korean with the name Son has the appeal of a boy playing in a man's game. He never stops running, until the coach calls him off.

He scores, he creates and, if his coach Mauricio Pochettino asks him to, he will defend as well.

What Son is achieving in his first full season in the English Premier League is not yet fully appreciated, even where he comes from.

When he struck his 20th and 21st goals of this season, he passed not only the record off Cha Bum Kun as the highest scoring Korean at a European club.

More than that, he passed the records of any Asian player in Europe.

He had followed Cha's path to Germany, even though Son was not even born when "Tscha-Boom" - as the Bayer Leverkusen fans of 31 years ago called their Korean idol - was in his prime.

Son went to Hamburg's football academy at 16, and he later impressed Franz Beckenbauer when he transferred to Cha's old club, Leverkusen.

England was a stage further. Pochettino's Spurs are an emerging force in which Kane and Dele Alli and Son all have scored more than 20 goals apiece.

No Tottenham trio ever achieved that, and no three players in any of England's 98 professional clubs have scored 20 apiece either.

The Tottenham trio are not on the same level as that Barcelona trio - Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez. They may never achieve that level of fame. But it seems ridiculous that last summer Son knocked on Pochettino's door and asked to be loaned out to get greater experience of English football.

Pochettino said no, Son. The manager told the player that he would get more game time than last season, and that he saw him as integral to what the team are building.

The Argentinian likes movement and eagerness and team appreciation. Son has those in abundance. He listens and learns. He is popular with "the lads". And he possesses the technique to adjust his body to score with the right or left foot so that few of us have worked out when, where or in what fashion he will pop in a goal.

He also, as Kane and Alli attest, adores laying goals on plates for his team-mates.

The hidden statistic of Son's season is that, while he figured in 33 league games this season, he was either a substitute, or was substituted, in 25 of them. His manager is protecting him from the evident fact that, at 1.83m and 77kg, Son would run himself into the ground if allowed to do so.

Sharapova, at 1.88m, is a model in her sport, and outside of it.

We can choose to take sides for and against her contention that taking meldonium, a drug that boosts the blood flow in patients at risk of heart failure, was an innocent habit.

We can side with the French tennis federation president Bernard Guidicelli who proclaimed: "There can be a wild card for people returning from injuries, there cannot be a wild card for people returning from doping."

Or we can go the other way, as German, Dutch, English, Italian and Spanish officials do, in paving the red carpet with cards to help her jump the qualifying process, and boost their profits.

"Some may question the moral compass of this decision, we do not," said the chief executive of Britain's Lawn Tennis Association when he announced that Sharapova would get a wild card to events in England that might help her qualify for Wimbledon.

That CEO, Michael Downey, is a Canadian who is quitting England to head home next month. He cut a deal with Sharapova's Russian agent who apparently promised that in return for a wild card for a Wimbledon warm-up event in Birmingham, England this year, she will return to play the same grass court event in 2018.

The rationale is that she doped, she served the 15-month ban, and she is great box office for the little tournaments that struggle to sell tickets and keep sponsors.

Maria and Son represent different values. But she is better with words, as she showed in her tweet the day after Roland Garros snubbed her: "If this is what it takes to rise up again then I am in it all the way, everyday.

"No words, games, or actions will ever stop me from reaching my own dreams.

"And I have many."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 20, 2017, with the headline 'Son and Sharapova as antithetical as the sports they play'. Print Edition | Subscribe