It’s been a pretty good couple of weeks for Maria Sharapova. First she overtakes Victoria Azarenka to become the new WTA No. 1, then she wins the French Open, thus completing her career Grand Slam, and now she’s confirmed that she’ll have the honor of carrying the Russian flag in the opening ceremonies of her first Olympic Games.
A day after conflicting reports surfaced over whether the Russian Olympic Committee had indeed nominated Sharapova for the role, Maria did what all 21st century athletes do these days: she broke news via social media. The 25-year-old, who was born in Siberia, took to Facebook to confirm the news.
“I can share some exciting news with you,” Sharapova wrote. “After the third round of the French Open, I woke up to a pretty memorable message. The Russian Olympic committee chose me to be the flag bearer at this years Olympic opening ceremony. I am so honored, and especially excited as it will be my first Olympics in my career.”
Sharapova will be the first female tennis player to have the honor and she’s the second tennis player to be officially confirmed as an Olympic flag bearer this year (though Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are both in the running as well), joining fellow No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who will fly the flag for Serbia. Most notably, she’ll be the first Russian woman to ever serve as an Olympic flag bearer, a distinction that has raised a few brows (two-time gold medalist Yelena Isinbayeva would seem a more obvious choice, but given the late timing of the pole vaulting competition she may choose to skip the opening ceremonies). Most know Sharapova’s origin story by now: born in Nyagan, a small city in western Siberia, she left the country at seven years old with her father, Yuri, to come to America in order to play tennis. She eventually enrolled at Nick Bollettieri’s academy in Florida, signed by IMG when she was eight years old, and has made the States her home ever since.
The jokes about Sharapova’s “Russian-ness”, or lack thereof, have come quickly and on one level, they’re understandable. Earlier this week, Slate’s Josh Levin jokingly claimed America finally had a Slam breakthrough. “We’ve heard so long about the sorry state of American tennis on the men’s and women’s side,” Levin joked during a podcast. “But I am going to claim Maria Sharapova for America. America just won a Grand Slam. She’s been living in the United States since she was seven years old, she plays for Russia, but in my heart she’ll always be an American.” This sentiment doesn’t just come from Americans. Russians often consider her more American, too.
But through it all, Sharapova has remained adamant about keeping her Russian passport, and really, doesn’t that actually make her more patriotic? Isn’t there something admirable about Sharapova’s desire to hold on to her Russian roots and honor her ancestry? Look, if Maria Sharapova wanted to be an American citizen and fly Old Glory, she could have done so. And if you look at it from a marketing perspective, she must be leaving a lot of money on the table by keeping the “RUS” next to her name. So credit to her for staying loyal to her roots and to the Russian Olympic Committee for not holding her “American-ness” against her. Because apart from Isinbayeva, whose participation in the opening ceremonies is up in the air, I can’t think of any other Russian woman who would be more deserving.