Maria Sharapova emerged as one of the most formidable tennis players on the planet in the mid-2000s, and while she managed to rack up five majors and a career Grand Slam in her prime, one victory at the U.S. Open was shrouded in some controversy thanks to…a banana.
Tennis can be an incredibly grueling sport, and it’s not rare for players to deal with cramps and other issues when participating in a marathon match where an already difficult game is made harder by the heat they’re subjected to.
Pickle juice is currently all the rage with competitors at the U.S. Open who are hoping to stave off those setbacks, but many of them harness other strategies to stay fueled during a match—including the bananas packed with the potassium, magnesium, and calcium that can come in handy when you’re battling muscle spasms.
Sharapova had a tendency to deploy that particular strategy over the course of her career, but she found herself pushing back against conspiracy theorists who felt the fruit was being deployed for a more nefarious purpose during her championship match against Justine Henin in Queens in 2006.
How a banana sparked a scandal involving Maria Sharapova at the 2006 U.S. Open
Prior to a couple of years ago, the governing bodies that oversee tennis had fairly strict rules that banned players from consulting with their coaches in the middle of a match, but the WTA and ATP respectively relaxed those regulations in 2020 and 2022.
As things currently stand, coaches are permitted to send hand signals to players in the middle of a game and have permission to speak with them for no more than 25 seconds in between points (doing so in the past would’ve opened them up to discipline).
Prior to that change, coaches were routinely accused of skirting the rules by deploying subtle gestures and mannerisms that could easily be explained away as normal behavior but still had a tendency to attract suspicion; were they really just scratching their nose or was something else at play?
Sharapova went on an absolute tear after arriving at the U.S. Open in 2006, as the 19-year-old had only lost a single set in the six matches she played to earn the right to face off against Henin in the final.
On September 9th, she walked away with the second major victory of her career by topping her German opponent in two 6-4 sets. However, she quickly found herself peppered with questions about why her father Yuri was spotted holding up a banana multiple times during the match (her coach, Michael Joyce, had also aroused further suspicion by holding up four fingers during a changeover, although he claimed he was simply signaling for a round of drinks).
Sharapova was adamant that the banana was not some sort of secret code and that her father was simply reminding her to eat, saying,
“I just won a Grand Slam. The last thing I’m gonna talk about is some fingers or a banana, right?
Can you tell me, if someone tells me to eat a banana, do you think that’s the reason I’m gonna win a match? Just give me your honest opinion… Just take the rules away, take the books away, just think.”
While the controversy would eventually blow over, it wouldn’t be the last time Sharapova was accused of cheating, and in 2016, she had her career derailed by doping accusations stemming from the use of what she said was medicine she was taking for a legitimate medical condition.