To read any excerpted passage in the ironically named Unstoppable, the memoir of tennis player Maria Sharapova, is to hear a woman furiously scream ‘I’m not owned’ over and over again until it becomes too embarrassing to watch. After receiving a two year ban for using the banned substance medonium, Sharapova is attempting a sympathy tour of sorts, positioning herself not as a humbled woman who willingly broke the rules and must pay penance, but as yet another white woman who’s convinced her black opponent is out to crush her. Sharapova has never been able to accept the reality that she’s just not good enough to consistently beat Serena Williams. Her press conferences and interview quotes speak volumes about her attitude towards the world’s greatest athlete and the entitlement she feels regarding constantly playing 12th fiddle to her. Now, as she attempts to spin dirt into performance enhanced gold, she has decided that Williams will bear the brunt of her ire. It will be Serena, currently on maternity leave after giving birth to her daughter, who must be the reason Sharapova can never fairly win.
‘First of all,’ Sharapova (or her ghost-writer) writes in one excerpt. ‘[Williams’] physical presence is much stronger and bigger than you realize watching TV. She has thick arms and thick legs and is so intimidating and strong.’
Serena is 1.75m tall. Sharapova is 1.88m tall.
It’s not hard to hear the dog-whistle at play here. Indeed, it’s more akin to a bullhorn. Williams is scary because she’s muscled and powerful, with the insinuation that having the physique that’s seen her win 23 Grand Slams is neither normal nor human. Remember, this is a woman who’s several inches shorter than Sharapova, but she still tries to play the victim card and sell herself as the meek white woman fighting the brutish black woman. Both Williams sisters have faced abuse from tennis professionals and sporting officials over their bodies. In a notoriously racist and elitist sport, both Venus and Serena often found themselves at the epicentre of that bigotry. Russian Tennis Federation president Shamil Tarpischev referred to the pair as the ‘scary’ ‘Williams brothers’.
Serena’s body, the peak physical form that has allowed her to remain at the top of her field well into her 30s, is consistently positioned as the undesirable form her competitors hope to never emulate. In one especially vile piece in the New York Times that discusses the very real fight female athletes face to balance a strong body self-image with a desire for success, Serena’s ‘large biceps and a mold-breaking muscular frame’ is pushed as the undesirable option. Sharapova, the taller player against Serena, also earned more in endorsements than Williams, despite being a far lesser athlete. It’s blonde white Sharapova who is the It girl, the one brands would rather have shilling their products, at least until she got caught doping. Not that Sharapova seems interested in pointing out this major advantage she had over the opponent she’s desperate to smear as scary and unfair.
Another excerpt in Unstoppable, a title that gets harder to say with a straight face every time I see it, offers an outlandish theory as to what drives the ‘rivalry’ between the world’s greatest athlete and a doper who couldn’t best a 19-2 statistic even while using performance enhancing drugs.
While discussing the first time Sharapova beat Williams, she reveals the aftermath of the game, where she heard Serena crying in the locker room: ‘I think Serena hated me for being the skinny kid who beat her, against all odds, at Wimbledon. I think she hated me for taking something that she believed belonged to her. I think she hated me for seeing her at her lowest moment. But mostly I think she hated me for hearing her cry. She’s never forgiven me for it.’
Once again, let’s look at the optics of this premise. Sharapova, the ‘skinny kid’ who stands at 6 foot 2 and is 6 inches taller than Serena, was certainly the underdog at that game, but prefacing that fact with a false and racially tinged detail of her body in comparison to Serena’s speaks volumes. Then, to imagine a world where Serena is so furious at an opponent beating her that she dedicates her life to systematically crushing her at every opportunity out of sheer spite is one where Serena is not only an inhuman machine but one whose anger will never be satisfied. It wasn’t enough for Serena to beat Sharapova once, this suggests, nor twice nor three times nor into double digits. It’s not enough for Serena to be the greatest athlete of our time, in the face of insurmountable odds and vile bigotry, so Sharapova wants us to believe. It’s not enough for Serena to be a legend, because Maria Sharpova beat her once and it made her cry.
I doubt Sharapova sees herself as racist or her bitterness as racially tinged. Inevitably, some interviewer will finally stop soft-balling her and ask about this, which will lead to a moment of watery eyes and an insistence she doesn’t have a racist bone in her body, she’s just trying so hard to be the best but it’s tough when you’re a skinny kid up against Serena. Her publishers knew exactly what was being written, what was being suggested - or outright said - and were happy to go along with it because it continues to perpetuate one of sport’s great lies - that there even is a rivalry between Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams. A rivalry requires a level playing field, and Sharapova has never been a good enough player to match Serena. That’s what drives her spite. Sharapova cannot handle the notion of her own mediocrity and it’s crushing her. It has deluded her enough for her to call her memoir Unstoppable and to persist in her fantasy that Serena spends her days plotting her downfall. It drove her to dope because she believed she deserved to win more than Serena, even if she couldn’t do it fairly.
Sharapova’s reality is that she isn’t good enough to be unstoppable. Serena Williams’s reality is that Sharapova’s anger doesn’t bother her one bit.