She was 17, standing on the finest lawn the world had ever seen, holding up an oversized plate. I was 17, sitting in my childhood bedroom under the roof where the heat was the most intense and the angular walls were like a gauntlet that made it hard to walk upright. My dad sat next to me and I heard him snivel when Maria Sharapova ran up the stands, climbed into her player’s box and fell into her dad’s arms, who hugged her clenching his fists and shaking them toward the sky, screaming and crying with joy.
I sat motionless at my desk and stared at the TV. I was deeply moved, stunned. When people your age achieve something amazing, the comparison you make to your own life often comes quickly. I thought I was on a good path with my own tennis career and I was, but it was blatantly obvious that Maria Sharapova had always gone her own way.
Wimbledon Was the Beginning of an Extraordinary Career
The skinny, tall, blonde girl with the loud screams and the powerful serve won Wimbledon when she was only 17 years old. She wore an asymmetrical, white dress that had been tailored specially for her and she engaged with the royal trophy presenters during the presentation as if she were a veteran in the sport. She was witty, charming and had a funny, gurgling chuckle. It was the beginning of an extraordinary career on the tennis court and the ascent of the first-ever finely orchestrated female athletic brand. Whereas Anna Kournikova, a stunningly beautiful tennis player, had somehow stumbled into being a global sports brand, Maria Sharapova was built up to be one, step by step.
She seemed to effortlessly combine a life as a tennis player who had to work hours and hours on the court and in the gym and travel from tournament to tournament with the busy lifestyle of being a celebrity. On court she was fierce and determined, in interviews she was chatty, fun and easy-going.
She started playing tennis when she was four in faraway Sochi, Russia, and by the age of 6, she was on an plane to America - her dad Yuri by her side and tennis rackets and a dream to become a tennis superstar in the hand luggage. From then on, everything became secondary to her sport. She didn’t see her mother for years because she wasn’t able to get a visa for the United States. And there were outrageous rumors about Yuri’s training methods. He allegedly made Maria practice barefoot in Florida’s midsummer heat on 122-degree Fahrenheit hardcourts to improve her footwork.
Every Victory Had a Storyline
She won Wimbledon when she was 17, the U.S. Open when she was 19 and the Australian Open when she was 21. Every victory had a storyline to it. One was a triumph of carefree youth, one of obstacles and expectations that had been overcome and one of the ultimate feeling of letting go, the unique and rare feeling when an athlete is "in the zone,” when all the dice fall into place no matter what you do and the perpetual whirl of all the hours in lonely gyms when it’s still dark outside and all the minutes on all the courts of the world when the sun is setting comes to a halt and every skill falls into place.
The essence of her character, though, truly showed when she won the French Open. She had struggled for years on the heavy clay in Europe, where her physical shortcomings came to light. She didn’t know how to slide and her flat, hard groundstrokes where neutralized. It culminated in a weary sounding press conference after yet another loss where Sharapova famously said: "I feel like a cow on ice.”
This phase showed the iron will foundations on which Sharapova had built her tennis career, her brand and her life. She embodied something society normally denied women - she was the ultimate competitor who reliably found her top form in friction and resistance. She hired a European coach, the Swede Thomas Hogstedt, who had grown up on clay, and they began working on her weaknesses. Year by year, one could see the improvements she made in her game on the clay until finally in 2012 she triumphed on her least favorite surface. It must have felt like a great satisfaction to win in front of the French crowds that never really warmed up to her. When she won another French Open title in 2014, I thought I could make out a tear of joy for a second there. In a nearly 15-year-long career in the public view’s ruthless eye, no camera had ever caught Sharapova crying in public. She was the ice princess, professional but composed.
She Never Recovered from Her Doping Ban
When doping officials caught her in 2016 with a now-forbidden substance in her system that she had taken for years while it was still allowed, it became her downfall. Many of her colleagues attacked Sharapova, who had been famously silent in locker rooms and called for a lifelong ban. Up until 2016, she had been the world’s best-paid female athlete, and her PR team’s perfectly oiled machinery never rested, not even during the dark hours of her doping ban. She appeared on countless talk shows, performing the role of the murky doping rules victim, published a book and brought out a documentary film about her life. The crack in the façade almost showed a human being, but a team of media people prevented that from happening.
She never recovered from her 15-month doping ban. She won one more title at a smaller tournament and lost in the first round of her last three Grand Slams. Her body, which she had pushed beyond the limits for such a long time, refused to keep going. Her injury timeouts eventually became longer than her active periods of playing. She has now announced her retirement at the age of 32 the only way Maria Sharapova could do it – in the form of an open letter on the fashion and lifestyle platforms Vogue and Vanity Fair. In it, she writes: "One of the keys to my success was that I never looked back and I never looked forward. (…) In giving my life to tennis, tennis gave me a life.” And in that the two 17-year-old girls from back in the days do have something in common. I, too, gave my life to my sport – and it gave me a life.