Maria Sharapova: A complicated tennis champion whose career was propelled to great heights by the sheer force of her will

  • Nobody thought a player could out-brawl Serena at the peak of her powers. And yet on in the 2004 Wimbledon final, Sharapova matched the American for power, and outdid her in intensity.

  • Aside from her understandable inability to solve the Serena Williams riddle, Maria Sharapova went from strength to strength over the next decade, adding four more Majors to her cabinet.

  • By 2006, Maria Sharapova’s on-court success and off-court fashion had made her a marketing behemoth that threatened to put every other female athlete in the shade.

Why does she need to play tennis?

That was a question asked of Maria Sharapova several times through her career. When people looked at the almighty effort she expended on the court, screaming her lungs out on every shot, they wondered whether modelling might have been an easier profession for her. When she underwent potentially career-ending shoulder surgery in 2008, they questioned why she needed to get back to the court when she could make all the money she wanted through endorsement deals. And when she stumbled from one early exit to another in her post-2017 comeback, there were open suggestions that she was flogging a dead horse in her attempts to return to Slam-winning relevance.

 Maria Sharapova: A complicated tennis champion whose career was propelled to great heights by the sheer force of her will

Maria Sharapova blows a kiss to the crowd after winning a match at the 2004 Wimbledon. AP Photo

Those questions have been put to rest now, as Sharapova has announced her retirement from the sport. “Tennis – I’m saying goodbye,” she said in a heartfelt essay for Vogue, bringing to an end a career that spanned nearly two decades. It was a journey that was filled with the most dizzying of peaks and the most humbling of valleys, and that combination of extremes is probably what made it so incredibly memorable.

At first, there was the era-defining sight of a giddy 17-year-old jumping around in joy after accomplishing the toughest task in tennis. By beating Serena Williams in the Wimbledon 2004 final, Sharapova not only showed the world that the legend of teenage phenoms was alive and well in the sport, she also reminded us how single-minded focus can in fact achieve the impossible. Some might have been fooled by the innocent and toothy grins she flashed at the trophy presentation, but those who saw what had come earlier knew that she wasn’t one to mess around.

Nobody thought a player could out-brawl a Serena at the peak of her powers. And yet on that red-letter day at SW19 Sharapova matched the American for power, and outdid her in intensity.

Serena being Serena, she made the Russian pay for that show of impertinence — with 19 straight wins after 2004. But aside from her understandable inability to solve the Serena riddle, Sharapova went from strength to strength over the next decade, adding four more Majors to her cabinet. That she achieved all of that while her looks attracted as much attention as her tennis, made for a story that was as media-friendly as you can get.

The comparisons with Anna Kournikova were inevitable. They were both blonde, both from Russia, and both blessed with the ability to make heads turn wherever they went. But while Kournikova was never as hot with her groundstrokes as she was with her pouts — she failed to win even a single title — Sharapova was always a tennis champion first and a looker later.

By 2006, Sharapova’s on-court success and off-court fashion had made her a marketing behemoth that threatened to put every other female athlete in the shade. That year she won the US Open by beating Justine Henin in the final, and it was no surprise that her list of endorsement deals grew longer each month. She was unofficially the ‘face’ of the women’s tour, officially the highest paid player in the world, and arguably the biggest stadium draw at any tournament.

Sharapova may not have intended it, but her mass appeal helped raise the profile of the sport considerably; even non-tennis fans tuned in to watch when ‘the hot Russian’ arrived on the court.

It would have been easy for Sharapova to get swayed by the searing spotlight, and lose her competitive edge amid the riches that kept rolling in. But for someone who was so driven as a kid that her father moved mountains (and also countries, migrating to USA from Russia when she was six) to give her the best tennis training possible, that was never an option.

Sharapova was the face that represented beauty, glamour and style, but she was also the countenance that exuded professionalism at every step. She never compromised on the practice hours, and never went soft on the court. “In giving my life to tennis, tennis gave me a life,” she said in her farewell essay, and she never forgot that no matter how blinding the flashlights got.

But even in those heady days of success, Sharapova found herself dogged by extremes. She consistently reached the business end of big tournaments, but was wildly inconsistent with her groundstrokes. She had a legion-like fan following all over the world, but was by most accounts an unpopular figure in the locker room. She was fiercely expressive and ruthlessly real on the court, but distant and unapproachable off it — to the point of being branded ‘cold’ and ‘fake’. She was elegant and classy in her red-carpet showings, but was deemed ungainly and graceless when she punctuated her muscular groundstrokes with ear-splitting shrieks.

The shrieks in particular were always a bone of contention, with many journalists and ex-players repeatedly lamenting how much of a distraction they were. But aside from the occasional “Isn’t she in Poland already?” (a straight-faced response to reporters informing her that Agnieszka Radwanska had complained about her grunting), Sharapova took it all in her stride. Putting her head down and blocking out the doubters, all the while working hard on her craft, was the Sharapova Way.

It was precisely the Sharapova Way that helped turn one of her most glaring weaknesses into her most celebrated strength. In the early days of her career Sharapova looked distinctly uncomfortable whenever she played on clay; her footwork was so laughably inadequate she was herself moved to describe it as that of a ‘cow on ice’. She didn’t slide the way claycourters are supposed to, and she didn’t win much on the dirt either.

But her self-deprecating attitude masked something greater, something that we should’ve known would eventually help her turn things around. Sharapova, as confident and egoistical as she may appear in some of her interviews, has never had a sense of entitlement. For her, it has always been about learning to become better, about pushing her way through the inevitable obstacles.

“My edge was never about feeling superior to other players,” she said in her essay. “It was about feeling like I was on the verge of falling off a cliff—which is why I constantly returned to the court to figure out how to keep climbing.”

She certainly figured out how to play on the dirt. In what has to be considered one of the most stunning role reversals in modern sporting history, Sharapova went from claycourt novice to claycourt expert quicker than anyone could have imagined. She learned how to slide alright — and has two Roland Garros trophies to show for it.

Sharapova’s triumph at the 2012 French Open made her one of just 10 women in the history of tennis to win the Career Slam, and only the second active player (the first being Serena) to do so. If there were any doubts before, there weren’t any after her Paris tilt — Sharapova was legitimately and objectively an all-time great.

Then came the fall in 2016, and it seemed like a part of the tennis world died with it. When Sharapova admitted in a press conference that she had tested positive for the newly banned substance meldonium, her entire legacy seemed in danger of coming crashing down. The circumstances of Sharapova’s transgression made her look careless at best and diabolical at worst, and even her staunchest fans found it hard to defend her.

A 15-month ban followed, and although the court ruling absolved her of intentional deceit, it did famously say that she was ‘the sole authour of her own misfortune’. Sharapova, the consummate professional, the stickler for rules, the personification of commitment, had slipped up in the most ignominious fashion imaginable; this was an embarrassment she would never be able to live down.

When she returned to the tour in 2017, the tennis community was sharply polarised. While some chose to give her a second chance, others felt she shouldn’t have been allowed back into the sport at all — least of all been given wildcards at big-ticket events. The woman herself ignored all of the naysayers and went on a PR offensive, giving the impression she was making a heroic recovery from a wrongful punishment.

Less than three years from her comeback tournament in Stuttgart (where she dramatically reached the semis), it is clear that the 15 months away from the sport took too much out of her. Sharapova was an ‘old’ 30 when she returned, given her teenage success and history of injuries, and that become more evident with each tournament she played.

She did still have her moments — the first-round win over Simona Halep at the 2017 US Open was a sparkling example of her relentless ball-striking, and her run to the quarters at Roland Garros 2018 showed that her claycourt expertise was still in good shape. But those moments were few and far between, dotted with long periods on the sidelines, and everything came to an irrevocable halt with her new shoulder surgery in 2019.

Why did Sharapova come back to the tour in 2017, when it was clear that physically she was nowhere close to the player she once was? She likely wanted to convince both herself and the world that she could win even without the aid of meldonium, but in retrospect she didn’t need to do that.

For all of her recklessness in failing to read the fine print regarding meldonium, the fact remains that Sharapova won her Majors fair and square. Meldonium wasn’t banned during any of her Slam runs, which means she was as guilty of winning by ‘unfair’ means as players who take strategic bathroom breaks after losing a set.

But that’s not how everyone saw it, and Sharapova ended up paying the ultimate price in trying to prove her point. Even though her will to fight remained as strong as ever till the end, her body stopped cooperating. Perhaps the lack of variety in her game also played a part in hastening her demise; she couldn’t keep up with her younger and fitter rivals physically, and couldn’t outwit them with tactical nous either.

It was an unfortunate way for a glittering career to end, and a reminder that even the most cussed of competitors ultimately have to give in to fate. But Sharapova had battled the odds for so long, and so gamely, that she almost fooled us into believing she would never stop.

It was always a struggle for the Russian, no matter how charmed her life may seem from the outside. She wasn’t the quickest, nor the most athletic, and early on her one-dimensional game seemed destined to be perennially hit or miss. But what she lacked in genetic gifts, she made up for with an intensity that bordered on the insane. Sharapova’s death stare was one of the most spine-tingling sights in all of tennis, and it conveyed to the opponent what her fans knew already: that she’d rather die than give anything less than her 100 percent.

There were never any half-measures with Sharapova. It was always full-throttle attack, without a hint of fear or remorse — which often translated into a string of sizzling winners.

But as spectacular as her high-risk game looked when it was on, there was always the lurking danger that it would come apart in the face of good defence. When that happened, all Sharapova had at her disposal was her fight. And usually, that was enough.

Her numerous comebacks from seemingly hopeless situations are the stuff of folklore already. Every year there were at least half a dozen displays of her trademark grit, but the 2014 Roland Garros triumph was probably the best representation of what Sharapova the competitor was all about. That tournament saw the Russian produce a series of three-set victories that were built on little more than her refusal to lose, culminating in an all-time great final against Halep.

“These courts revealed my true essence,” Sharapova said. “Behind the photo shoots and the pretty tennis dresses, they exposed my imperfections — every wrinkle, every drop of sweat. They tested my character, my will, my ability to channel my raw emotions into a place where they worked for me instead of against me.”

They worked for her to the tune of five Slams, several stints as World No 1, and a rich legacy that will likely stand the test of time. And she did it all while also bringing hordes of fans into the stands. Has a place been reserved for her in the Hall of Fame already?

And yet it could so easily have been a lesser career, because none of what Sharapova achieved was born out of necessity or direction. She just happened to become super-successful and super-popular, by merely being prepared to fight against anything and everything. It was a simple, salt-of-the-earth formula that was so stunningly effective you couldn’t help but be inspired by it.

“One of the keys to my success was that I never looked back and I never looked forward,” she said. “I believed that if I kept grinding and grinding, I could push myself to an incredible place.”

Why did Sharapova need to play tennis? To be perfectly honest, she didn’t need to. But aren’t we all thankful that she did?

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Updated Date: Feb 27, 2020 10:35:48 IST


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