The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Joey Dillon, March 3, 2020

How does Sharapova’s retirement affect the WTA? | Interview: Christian discusses how Title IX and Billie Jean King directly impacted her career

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#MissYouMaria: Sharapova Says Goodbye

Maria Sharapova announced her retirement last week, weeks before her 33rd birthday, in a Vanity Fair op-ed. The former World No. 1 ended her career ranked No. 373 after struggling to overcome shoulder and forearm injuries. Though Sharapova’s injuries were no secret, the lengths she went through to even stay in the conversation were. She revealed in her column that 30 minutes before her 6-1, 6-1 demolition to Serena Williams in the US Open first round last year, she had undergone a procedure to help numb her shoulder. Her forearms – where she admitted she had interjection syndrome – also began to break down, most notably during her first Grand Slam retirement last year at Wimbledon.

The case of Sharapova’s career is, to put it in light terms, a roller coaster. She loudly announced her presence to the tour with her infamous grunts, before quickly capturing her first Grand Slam at Wimbledon at only 17. From there, her good looks and constant winning provided the perfect equation for sponsors. When she turned pro in 2002, she was called the “next Anna Kournikova,” but Sharapova dismissed those thoughts by quickly racking in WTA singles titles – something Kournikova could never achieve.

Injuries started to unravel Sharapova in 2008, when she had to have potentially career-ending shoulder surgery. While it took time for her to regain the play that vaulted the Russian to No. 1, her undisputed work ethic allowed Sharapova to reclaim the No. 1 ranking, an Olympic silver medal and a Career Grand Slam in 2012 at the French Open. Though Sharapova called herself a “cow on ice” when playing on clay, she would end up winning Roland Garros a second time in 2014. She would battle more shoulder issues until January 2016, when a failed drug test altered her career.

Testing positive for the newly-banned Meldonium, a Russian over-the-counter medicine she claimed was for vitamin deficiencies. Originally handed a two-year ban, Sharapova fought the ITF and received a reduced sentence of 15 months. Her reputation of being the ultimate competitor was quickly tarnished. Her time off allowed the superstar to build her off-court brands (she earned more than $360M in on and off court earnings by the time she retired), but she was never the same. Only one title and one Grand Slam quarterfinal were added to Sharapova’s resume after her comeback in April 2017. She ended her Hall of Fame career on a four-match losing streak with her final win coming against Alison Riske in Cincinnati. Though retirement was imminent for Sharapova, the larger question is, how does this bode for the WTA?

Even though she’s been a non-factor for three years, Sharapova brings in massive numbers for the WTA – especially on a digital front. Many of the WTA’s top posts on Twitter and Facebook include news of Sharapova. Though Serena Williams dominated the last fifteen years on the court, Sharapova claimed essentially all off-court earnings and media opportunities. She was one of the few female athletes to use her success on court and profit heavily off. Even when people ask me what the WTA is, I say “it’s the tour Maria, Serena and Venus play on.” It didn’t matter if you couldn’t even say what color a tennis ball is, everybody knew the name Maria Sharapova.

If you asked me when Sharapova first came back how her retirement affected the WTA, I’d say that it would show a lack of consistent starpower that could fuel the casual fan tuning in. However, the rise of Naomi Osaka, Bianca Andreescu and Sofia Kenin have created more depth and international notoriety for the WTA as a product. The WTA was a bit stagnant when Sharapova was ruling the tour and now the field is a lot more even with new winners emerging every week. Having a superstar is great, but, as we’ve seen with the ATP, can get quickly boring. Now, I’m not saying that these young guns will take Sharapova’s torch and jump into being the WTA’s face. There will definitely be a cooldown period before someone will take the off-court reigns Sharapova grasped tightly. With the Tokyo Olympics on the horizon, Naomi Osaka will be your next big bet.

With all of that said, though she wasn’t a locker room favorite coupled with the forever scarlet letter embroidered from her doping ban, Maria Sharapova made the sport better and more marketable. Her career coincided with the rise of social media, where she’s been a powerhouse amassing over 25M followers on her platforms. A savvy businesswoman spearheaded by her candy company Sugarpova, Sharapova will remain a heavy presence in society – just not (loudly) blasting winners on the court.

This Week in Women’s Tennis

Aryna Sabalenka won her sixth career WTA title at the Qatar Total Open. She secured her third Premier 5 title with a 6-3, 6-3 win over Petra Kvitova.

At the Abierto Telcel in Acapulco, Heather Watson captured her fourth WTA crown, but getting there was a marathon. Facing teenage sensation Leylah Fernandez, the Brit went up 6-2 in the second set tiebreak before the Canadian qualifier stormed back to take the second. On her tenth match point, Watson emerged the winner 6-4, 6-7(8), 6-1.

Johanna Larsson, former No. 45 in singles and runner-up in doubles at the 2017 WTA Finals, announced her retirement. She finished her career with two WTA singles and fourteen doubles titles and was the winningest Swede in Fed Cup history. 

Giuliana Olmos, last week’s Five at the IX interview, became the first Mexican to capture a title in Acapulco.

Olmos’ record-breaking week was also joined by Mexico’s first WTA semifinalist since 1993 iin Renata Zarazua, who upset Sloane Stephens before falling to Leylah Fernandez.

Ons Jabeur is capitalizing on her career-best tennis. After holding match point last week in the Dubai second round, she upset Karolina Pliskova en route to her first quarterfinal in Doha.

Kim Clijsters continues her comeback in Monterrey, Mexico at the Abierto GNP Seguros. She shares her improvements following her first match back ahead of her first round encounter against No. 2 seed Johanna Konta. 

The spread of coronavirus has impacted more of the tennis world. On top of Fed and Davis cup venue changes and ITF circuit cancellations, the WTA cancelled a WTA $125k event in Anning, China scheduled for the end of April.

Hsieh-Su Wei and Barbora Strycova captured the Middle East double and improved their 2020 record as a duo to 17-1. They sat down with WTA Insider for a fun Champions Corner podcast.

The WTA announced a partnership with fashion brand Lilly Pulitzer, where WTA corporate courtside members such as chair umpires and Sports Science & Medicine members will be outfitted in clothing. Lilly Pulitzer will also donate $50,000 to WTA Charities as part of their “Be the Sunshine” youth empowerment initiative. WTA Legend Tracy Austin was announced as the partnership’s brand ambassador.

On the ITF circuit, the following players were crowned champions:
$25,000 Altenkirchen, Germany: Eva Lys (WTA #unranked/ITF #580)
$25,000 Macon, France: Oceane Dodin (#129)
$25,000 Moscow, Russia: Ekaterina Kazionova (#575)
$25,000 Perth, Australia: Shiho Akita (#681)
$25,000 Rancho Santa Fe, California, USA: Xiaodi You (#192)
$25,000 Sunderland, Great Britain: Viktoriya Tomova (#151)
$15,000 Antalya, Turkey: Eleonora Molinaro (#239)
$15,000 Heraklion, Greece: Darya Astakhova (#570)
$15,000 Monastir, Tunisia: Nefisa Berberovic (#648)

Tweet of the Week

Ons Jabeur’s week in Doha was a delight and the Qatar crowd acknowledged the road the Tunisian is paving.

Five at the IX: Kaitlyn Christian

Kaitlyn Christian is currently ranked No. 66 in the WTA doubles rankings with one ITF singles and twelve ITF doubles titles to her name. She was a three-time All American at USC and was Emma Stone’s playing double as Billie Jean King in “Battle of the Sexes.” She sits down to discuss being a naturally-gifted doubles player, playing pickleball and how BJK and Title IX afforded the career she currently has.

Joey: Most top juniors that play college with pro aspirations go with a singles mindset, but you always knew you wanted to be an elite doubles player. Why was that?
Kaitlyn: Playing on the ITF circuit is tough, most weeks I was losing money playing singles. For me, the discrepancy between my singles ranking and doubles ranking was huge and after the first year of playing singles full-time, I made the decision to focus on doubles and immediately I saw a huge change financially. The advantageous thing about playing on the WTA circuit is that the tournaments pay for accommodation and food. My expenses are mostly for travel and coaching expenses and with the prize money at the larger WTAs and Grand Slams I am able to stay in the green. The decision to focus on doubles early was a key decision and turned out to be a good move.

Joey: Being a doubles specialist is hard, especially financially. How was the process to navigate the ITF circuit before you were able to make a decent income on the WTA?
Kaitlyn: In college I always had better results in doubles and enjoyed my time on the doubles court much more. Especially being able to play with some of your best friends makes your time on the court that much more enjoyable. I was and am still fortunate enough to have many friends still playing professionally and it makes my life on and off the court very easy. Tennis is a very individual sport, but I love the aspect of playing as a team and doubles makes you feel a part of one. 

Joey: You play elite pickleball tournaments during the offseason. What are the benefits of cross-training with a similar, yet completely different sport?
Kaitlyn: Pickleball can be a very physical sport. The big difference between tennis and pickleball is the different muscle groups you use to play each sport. Sometimes when I play pickleball, I’m more tired and sore than when I play tennis because I’m using muscle groups I’m not used to using. Pickleball is a lot of lunging and the time between to recover points is much less than in tennis. I think that pickleball really enhances my tennis game in respect to fast exchanges at the net. Your hand speed is definitely tested on the pickleball court which gives me faster reaction times on the tennis court.

Joey: You’re most known (at least right now) for playing Emma Stone’s body double in the Battle of the Sexes. Billie Jean King is such a pioneer for women’s athletics. Can you describe the impact she’s had on you on and off of the court?
Kaitlyn: Of course Billie Jean King was a pioneer in working for equality in mens and womens sports.  It is because of her groundbreaking work that I was able to get a college scholarship under Title IX to play college tennis and attend USC. I have always respected and admired her on every level, and the chance to meet her and spend time on the court with her will be one of the most memorable moments in my life. Reading her book, “Pressure is a Privilege” changed my entire mindset on and off the tennis court and made me have a much greater appreciation for the life I am lucky enough to live. When you are around BJK, you get the feeling that she really cares and is always invested in other people’s well-being and this is what makes her special.

Joey: You’ve made three WTA finals, including your first Premier last month in St. Petersburg. I’m sure winning that first title is an immediate goal, but what are your goals for 2020?
Kaitlyn: My immediate goals are not in results but in my personal development as a player. I’ve realized that if I want my career on tour to be a long one that my first goal is to surround myself with the best possible people. I spent my last off-season with Cara Black and that has been one of  the best decisions of my career thus far. I think that the people you surround yourself with can have a large impact on your career. Of course, my goal is to take my first WTA title this year, but I think that will come with consistency in my work and effort week in and week out. For me, the most important thing is to enjoy the life I am living on tour and to make sure I’m giving my best effort on a daily basis.

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon  Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal High Post Hoops
Thursdays: Golf
By Carly Grenfell, @Carlygren
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala,@ELindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.