– Maria Sharapova: My love for tennis stopped me from walking away

Posted on June 20, 2010 
Filed Under Maria Sharapova Pics

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Maria Sharapova says her passion for Wimbledon is stronger than ever after 18 months out with a shoulder injury

Maria Sharapova
Maria Sharapova says she is capable of once again winning her favourite grand slam, Wimbledon. Photograph: Fabio De Paola for the Guardian

“I had so many ways I could have got out,” Maria Sharapova says intently, her eyes opening wide as she remembers the choice she faced last year. Instead of returning to the grinding routine of professional tennis, she could have escaped forever. “I had so many excuses I could have made that it would have been easy to walk away. I could have said that no one else in tennis has ever come back from a serious rotator-cuff injury to their shoulder. I could have said I’ve made enough money to last me the rest of my life. I could have said I’ve done this and done that.”

Sharapova has already won Wimbledon, and two other grand slams, and been No1 in the world. She has also ended up as the most lucratively endorsed woman athlete in the world, after receiving a record $80m (£54m) contract from Nike this year. Her life, however, has rarely been easy. And so Sharapova pauses for breath as, with Wimbledon less than a week away, she considers both the injury that ruined her last 18 months on the Sony Ericsson WTA tour and a tumultuous career that began when she left the Russian port of Sochi for Miami as a seven‑year‑old girl. She did not see her mother for the next two years.

“My family and I built my whole career from scratch,” she says in a meaningful reminder that her father, Yuri, was so determined to shape her success that he moved her from Russia to America in 1994. “It wasn’t like I had a famous boyfriend who made my career. I didn’t have a magazine that made my career. So I could have chosen to stop playing because we did it ourselves. But I love the sport too much to wake up and say I no longer want to do it. I missed it. It got to the point where I would look at books and pictures of some great moments I had on court just to remember what it felt like.”

The temptation with Sharapova is to picture her as the beautiful young girl who won Wimbledon at the age of 17, in 2004, with such verve and joy, or to dismiss her as a moneyed celebrity who has moved away from the court to the red carpet. But, listening to her talk with such intimacy, it becomes easier to think of her as being defined most by those early years in America when she was so isolated from everything she had known.

“I always reflect on it, on a daily basis. No matter how many wins and losses I have it helps to know that I have a home I can go to now. After I injured my elbow at Palm Springs [in March] I had to have another month off. But I went to see my parents in Florida for a whole week and we had these long conversations. I know my roots and I cannot forget the journey I made.”

She punctuates her engaging conversation with girlish laughter and breathless exclamations. Yet the difficult nature of her childhood is stark. “I didn’t see my mom for two years. Back then there were no cell phones and, oh my goodness, no email! All I had was a pen and some paper, and so I wrote letters that would arrive back home a month later.”

Sharapova only spoke to her mother once every six months on the phone, but she tries to brush aside the trauma that must have induced in her at Nick Bollettieri’s Academy. “I was young and happy. I was in Florida, in the sunshine, learning a new language and playing tennis. But it was very difficult for my mom to lose her husband and daughter.”

At the age of 23, and being so open about her desire to have children one day, Sharapova has begun to understand all that her mother, Yelena, endured as she waited for an American visa. “It was very tough for her. She was about 27 when I left for America with my dad. I’m not far off that age myself now and so I can imagine what it must have been like for her.”

It was also painful for Sharapova. Her father had to find work, often in menial jobs like dish-washing a few hours away, and so she had no option but to board at the Academy. “It felt as if I was walking through puddles and I was never really sure when I was going to reach dry land.”

On a gentle afternoon in the English sunshine, Sharapova sounds as if she has returned to a darker place in her childhood. “I was much younger than the other girls who boarded at the Academy. I was teased a lot by them. I was never a part of their groups. But …”

Sharapova’s voice trails away but she soon looks up. “That’s the way it was. It was really tough but it was also a good learning experience. It matured me in many different ways. It made me realise at a young age that, sometimes, you have to be on your own. There are going to be tough times but you’ll get through it. And then you’ll see your dad on the weekend and it’ll be easier then. I think I came out of it much stronger.”

There is an undoubted truth to Sharapova’s claim – but it must have been terribly lonely for a young girl in a strange country. “I didn’t have much time to socialise but there’s no doubt I had my share of tough days when you don’t quite know why you feel so bad,” she says. “Why didn’t I play as well? Why did I lose when I should’ve won? But those lows are important. If everything was going smoothly you would never build your character.”

That same inner strength helped Sharapova to overcome her more recent adversity. “I spent a whole year when I was injured just trying to get my arm back to the point where I could hit a tennis ball for more than 30 minutes a day. I’d hit for 15 minutes and it would feel as if my arm was going to fall off. In the back of your mind you have your worries but I stayed positive and hung in there.”

Sharapova cuts a more fragile figure than the bold and big‑hitting teenager who surprised everyone, including herself, when she won Wimbledon six years ago. “It was a shock to me. I never thought I was physically and mentally ready to last two weeks and seven matches against all kinds of opponents. And looking back at that moment of victory, when I was just so happy after beating Serena Williams in the final, I also think how fearless I was. To win Wimbledon at 17! Sometimes in life you get these little door openings and I just took it and played some great tennis.”

In contrast to that fearless girl Sharapova looked physically wrecked and mentally tormented when, at the US Open last year, she hit 21 double-faults while losing to the American teenager Melanie Oudin. “I was changing my service action every two weeks. I was trying to find a motion where I could serve seven days in a row without worrying over my shoulder. It was a difficult time. And even now if it gets cold I really have to make sure I warm it up.”

Sharapova’s injury was caused by the elongated backswing she had used on her serve for years – with that action helping to produce the power which was the basis of her whole game. Her conviction, once so wrapped around her serve, was dented. But, since returning to the tour last month, her confidence has increased a little. In the third round of the French Open she had four break points to go 3-0 up in the deciding set before losing to Justine Henin.

On her more favoured surface of grass last week, Sharapova breezed through to the final in Birmingham before her more recent frailties returned as she lost 7-5, 6-1 to Li Na of China. But she is likely to be galvanised at Wimbledon. “I absolutely love Wimbledon. It’s the grand slam that means the most to me and I think I could do very well this year.” Could she even win it again? “Absolutely. If I didn’t think that, I wouldn’t be there.”

That ambition may seem unrealistic as Sharapova works towards regaining her former power and lustre. But her sheer relish for Wimbledon, as well as the fighting spirit that has been forged in testing circumstances, remains compelling. She is also certain to be near the centre of attention in the women’s draw – for Sharapova is so much more interesting than most of her rivals.

“I’ll be doing my homework before Wimbledon,” she laughs. “I started taking French lessons when I was out with the elbow injury. I went to a language school every morning and it was really fun. I have my homework with me right now in this thick folder. I’m keeping up with it.”

Her boyfriend, the Slovenian basketball player Sasha Vujacic, is embroiled in the NBA finals between his team, the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Boston Celtics. “He’ll try to come over for Wimbledon but I’m doing my homework until then. I love it. I had to get my high school diploma via the internet and I remember being so excited when I got my books at the start of it. And before that, when we were reunited as a family, my mother made me do a lot of school work. I would study history and even mathematics in Russian. I’m so grateful now.

“I hit a ball for a living, but I have that passion to keep learning. I have those values my parents gave me, and they constantly remind me that the first thing is to be a good person and the second is to be a professional – without even having the word ‘tennis’ in front of it. It’s been a tough journey, but I wouldn’t change anything about it.”

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