Sporting Life

Sporting Life: Maria Sharapova deserves a second chance but must use it well

It can be quite challenging to be on Maria Sharapova's side because she really doesn't care if you are. It can be rather difficult to defend her, especially when she thinks remorse is bad business. This is an athlete who won't play your game because she is here only to play hers.

And really, it's her game, as finely unsubtle as her, which should be under discussion. Before her Eugenie Bouchard contest overnight at the Madrid Open, the Russian, world No. 258, out for 15 months - almost three times as long as that Federer fellow was at rest - had already beaten three players in the top 50.

It's very early days but to hold on to confidence in disgrace, to retain an edge when off the Tour, to not let competitiveness dull too much, is impressive. But not surprising. Of all Sharapova's strengths, nothing glistens more than her ambition. She was never going to be unready on her return.

But instead of talking forehands it's still this silly spectacle of accusation from rivals - "cheater", said Bouchard - and disdain from Sharapova's agent which triggers headlines. What is less discussed is that the current women players, who had 15 months to build reputations and make us forget the Russian, have ceded the spotlight to her.

Sharapova annoys and she fascinates. Conceit, after all, can be hypnotic. What people want from athletes who return from a ban is to be penitent, to not take favours like wild cards, to want to be returned to the embrace of their tribe.

But Sharapova won't budge nor bend, always unapologetically herself, indifferent to correctness and allergic to humility. Other people do camaraderie, she does chilliness. As she said of her critics: "To have nicer things to say about me in press conferences, what will that change to my tennis?" She's here not to gain a sisterhood but a silver trophy.

We don't expect athletes to aspire to sainthood but we do, at 30, assume they will evolve. Into champions who acknowledge errors, and see the big picture, and appreciate that legacy lies beyond hitting a ball.

Sharapova is used to people wanting to put her in her polished place and was probably prepared for the name-calling. Cheat, vain, favoured, indulged. Some of it true, some of it unfair, but all of it of no interest to her. Rhinos could have interesting chats with Sharapova about hides.

Some athletes are perfectly pleasant but Sharapova is perfectly complex. She tweets happily to her 5.66 million followers while she treats critics like wandering lint. She is elegantly dressed and inelegantly loud and has a survivor's keen instinct for self-preservation. After all, this poised, self-made woman was once just a scared kid in a foreign land who has come a long way.

In 2004, at Wimbledon, she was asked about her journey to America and said: "I was only with my dad when we came because I didn't see my mom for two years because she couldn't get a visa. We landed in Miami airport - I was seven years old, guys, I don't know - but I think we took a bus and we drove to (Nick) Bollettieri's (academy). We came there like at 12 midnight... we stayed in a hotel. The next morning we came to the academy. That's how it all started."

Hardship is not an excuse for being a tone-deaf diva, but just because Sharapova can sometimes be a hard woman to like doesn't give people licence to be unfair. If you are free to heckle her, it's also best if you read part of the Court of Arbitration for Sport report which states:

"Finally, the Panel wishes to point out that the case it heard, and the award it renders, was not about an athlete who cheated. It was only about the degree of fault that can be imputed to a player for her failure to make sure that the substance contained in a product she had been legally taking over a long period, and for most of the time on the basis of a doctor's prescription, remained in compliance with the TADP (Tennis Anti-Doping Programme) and WADC (World Anti-Doping Code).

"No question of intent to violate the TADP or W ADC was before this Panel: under no circumstances, therefore, can the Player be considered to be an 'intentional doper'."

Sharapova made errors in judgment and it has correctly cost her 15 months out of tennis and a bruised reputation but now enough. Enough of the wild-card talk; enough with the cheating claims. The most human of things is the mistake and the most beautiful is the second chance. To be forgiving is to appreciate that a life should not be defined forever by a single unworthy act. Andre Agassi, remember, was once a jerk, now he's a tennis savant.

But the second chance is not a gift, it is in fact a pact between two parties. It involves the fan who says, OK, Sharapova served her time, let's move on, but it also includes the athlete who says, 'Thanks for your acceptance, I promise my best.'

Sharapova always offers her best as a player, but it's her best as a person which matters here. Of course some vanity is permissible in sport and there is no law requiring her to air-kiss her rivals. We don't expect athletes to aspire to sainthood but we do, at 30, assume they will evolve. Into champions who acknowledge errors, and see the big picture, and appreciate that legacy lies beyond hitting a ball.

Sharapova will always be famous, but grace will make her memorable.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 09, 2017, with the headline 'Sharapova deserves 2nd chance but must use it well'. Print Edition | Subscribe