Maria Sharapova retired from professional sport in February, after a long and gruelling battle with an uncooperative right shoulder. But the recent surge in virtual tennis events allowed her to participate in a simulation.
Sharapova joined both Williams sisters as part of a glamorous field – including not just eight leading tennis players but models, DJs, singers and social-media influencers – in Sunday night’s Stay At Home Slam.
Taking up just a few hours, the event was played on the Mario Tennis game with Nintendo Switch controllers, and resulted in a victory for American No 2 Taylor Fritz – a man who has previously claimed to being “very close to professional level on Fifa” – and his partner, TikTok celebrity dancer Addison Rae.
“I play a lot of video games and recently got back into it because there’s been a lot of virtual athlete tournaments,” Fritz said before the event. “I’ve never played Mario Tennis, but I want to win this really bad.”
Sharapova’s appearance did not result in a showdown with Serena Williams – with whom she used to share a fierce but one-sided rivalry – as she and model Karlie Kloss lost their first-round match against 2018 Wimbledon finalist Kevin Anderson and Tennessee Titans quarter-back Ryan Tannehill.
In fact, both Williams sisters also struggled with Mario Tennis, which took a more colourful and less literal approach to simulating the sport than Tennis World Tour – the game on which Andy Murray and Kiki Bertens won the men’s and women’s events at last week’s Virtual Madrid Open. They also failed to win a match.
The final saw Fritz and Rae score a 6-4 victory over Japanese No1 Kei Nishikori and his DJ partner Steve Aoki. “I was more nervous there than in any of my real matches,” Fritz said afterwards. “This was so much fun. Addison absolutely carried the team.”
The winners earned a charity donation of $1 million, which they forwarded to No Kid Hungry – an organisation devoted to ending child hunger in the USA. All the other entrants were granted a $25,000 donation to a coronavirus-related charity of their own choosing.