PARIS, May 21 – When Maria Sharapova made her comeback in rainy Warsaw this week after nine months out with injury, recession-hit commercial suitors, eager tournament promoters and the WTA breathed huge sighs of relief.But when a player rakes in 30 million dollars in endorsements, and can boast an average of over eight million Internet search engine results, not everyone joins in the applause.
Britain’s top player Anne Keothavong, who was also playing in Poland, complained that the 22-year-old former world number one was being favoured by the Warsaw organisers.
"She’s the only person the tournament gives a practice court to for two hours straight and she doesn’t have to share the court with anyone else so I expect to see her firing after all the preferential treatment," Keothavong wrote on her blog.
The antipathy towards Sharapova, one of the top attractions at the French Open next week having missed the last two Grand Slam tournaments, is not a new phenomenon, with her own compatriots often the chilliest.
"She grew up in America and trains there, so we don’t have anything in common," Elena Dementieva once complained, while 2004 French Open champion Anastasia Myskina even threatened to boycott the Fed Cup if Sharapova was selected for the Russian team.
At last year’s Wimbledon, unknown Russian Alla Kudryavtseva laid bare the resentment after handing Sharapova an embarrassing 6-2, 6-4 second round defeat.
"I don’t know her well. I’m quite sure no-one on the tour knows Maria well because she’s not a very talkative girl and not very outgoing," Kudryavtseva said.
"But we were in the same team for Fed Cup. After that she started saying hello. That’s nice."
However, Sharapova’s agent at IMG, Max Eisenbud, who has represented her since she was 11, believes his client is key to the health and wealth of a sport that can be short on personality.
"Let’s say you want a global female athlete," Eisenbud told SportsBusiness Journal.
"It’s really just Maria. She is global because tennis is global, (and add) the fact that she is Russian, so she is not American but Americans think she is American.
"It makes her more appealing. Not to take anything away from Venus and Serena (Williams), they are great champions, but they don’t mean as much, say, in Korea as Maria does."
Sharapova, tough as teak as a result of her well-documented early struggles, is single-minded enough to ignore her detractors.
When she lost at Roland Garros last year to compatriot Dinara Safina, she was in bristling form, shrugging off the jeers of the fickle French crowd as she flounced off Suzanne Lenglen Court.
"I can’t please everyone. It’s not in my job description," she said.
"I go out there and fight my heart out. They paid for the ticket to watch me so they must appreciate me on some level."