LONDON, United Kingdom, June 30 -There is no pop-up sweet shop in Wimbledon Village bearing her name, no banner in the local department store and even talk of the All England Club revoking her lifetime membership.
The tennis goes on in SW19 but Maria Sharapova’s absence as a result of her two-year doping ban hasn’t exactly been keenly felt by her fellow pros.
Despite winning just six Grand Slam titles compared with Serena Williams’ 22, her celebrity and earning power on the women’s tour was unrivalled and she regularly outstripped the American on the list of sport’s highest paid athletes.
But the poster girl of women’s tennis was far from popular among her peers and not, it seems, due to her immense earning power.
‘She’s a totally unlikeable person,’ was Slovakian Dominika Cibulkova’s blunt assessment. ‘I don’t miss her on the tour. Arrogant, conceited and cold. When I sit beside her in the locker room, she won’t even say hello,’ the 2014 Australian finalist added.
The unimpressed face pulled by the third seed here, Poland’s Agnieszka Radwanska, when asked if Sharapova was irreplacable was equally telling.
‘You should ask fans or the tournament [organisers] or someone,’ she replied after winning her first round match against Ukraine’s Kateryna Kozlova in straight sets, ‘I think we have so many other good players, so many other women playing great tennis, so many other good matches, I think the women’s is still going to be a great event.’
Former coach Nick Bollettieri, however, insists Wimbledon is poorer without the presence of the statuesque former champion in the draw. Bollettieri, who first encountered Sharapova when she arrived at his Florida tennis academy from Siberia aged nine, thinks her star power will be missed.
‘Maria brought elegance and beauty,’ Bollettieri told Sportsmail.‘ She dressed beautifully, she performed beautifully, she won this tournament at a very young age. But I think most of all she stood in with the tradition of elegance and respecting Wimbledon and all it’s given to the world. You know that when Maria played she would fight and no matter what the score was she’d give it all.’
The Russian was banned from tennis for two years last month after testing positive for meldonium. Unless she wins an appeal there is no possibility she will be allowed back to play at Wimbledon until 2018 and even then she may be left relying on wildcards.
Her absence is arguably felt more keenly at this Grand Slam than any other. It was here that she won her first Grand Slam match against Jelena Dokic in 2003 and claimed her maiden Slam title the next year aged just 17.
Ever the businesswoman she tweeted this week about enrolling at a course at Harvard business school Sharapova also exploited the marketing opportunitues around the event. Last year she opened a pop-up sweet shop under her Sugarpova brand name up the road and was a regular at glitzy events before the tournament. Not this year.
Nine-time Wimbledon champion Martina Navratilova said the reach of the women’s game may soon be doubly hurt by both Sharapova and Williams’s absence.
‘It feels like a crossroads right now,’ she said, ‘When Serena doesn’t play it leaves such a gap as she’s been dominating the game for such a long time and Maria’s absence is another big hole. The two biggest names in the game for the last 10 years publicity and personality wise have been Maria and Serena. We’re kind of in a generational changing of the guard.’