Sometimes on set point your foe is set to blast a crosscourt forehand but actually hits down the line behind you. Well, that’s sort of what happened when Maria Sharapova announced that she would be having a downtown LA press conference. Like many in tennis, we presumed the 28-year-old would be retiring. Wrong. She actually was there to explain that she’d failed a drug test at the Australian Open. But in the lead-up, we’d written this lickety-split appreciation of her career. We hope you enjoy.
She was as Russian as vodka, yet as American as Starbucks. She was tennis’ Nanuchka, a loyal native with Russia deep in her soul, who ventured to the West and soon was intoxicated by it all – glitz, glamor, glory, and freedom.
Of course, other notable Russians have come to America’s shore – dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and tennis goddess Anna Kournikova. But no other tennis “ova” – well, no other person – so adeptly embodied and combined the prime geopolitical reality of the past 70 years – the Russian-American divide.
Maria Sharapova was born in the Soviet Union two years before the Berlin Wall fell. Her parents lived in Chernobyl and fled the nuclear plant’s implosion there. Was there a greater symbol of Soviet failure? They settled in Siberia. Is there a region that so evokes totalitarian dread? And then Maria’s Dad, $1,100 in his pocket, left his wife Yelena and his country behind and took his daughter to Florida, the land of tennis factories. Has there ever been a font of more champions?
Soon Maria seemingly morphed into an American. Her American English was bright and lyrical. Her blithe lifestyle was easy and free. She looked like a Vogue model. She drove a Porsche, hosted disco parties and chatted with Paris Hilton at red carpet galas. She became a social media force to be reckoned with and the most successful tennis business woman in history, thank you very much. The 6’2″ blond seamlessly fused her ability to hit deep down-the-line backhands with her slim tall good looks, her Trumpian drive and savvy smarts to become the world’s wealthiest woman athlete. Twenty-five million dollars a year ain’t so shabby.
Rollling Stone Magazine observed, “Sharapova is tall, white, and blond, and, because of that, makes more money in endorsements than Serena, who is black, beautiful, and built like one of those monster trucks that crushes Volkswagens at sports arenas.” Her slightly over-enthusiastic agent Max Eisenbud predicted she would become “a brand as universally recognized as Calvin Klein, BMW and Rolex.”
What a capitalist!
The American dream incarnate – yes? But Masha (as her few friends call her) always insisted that inside she still is very much a Russian. In fact, in Moscow, massive billboards blasted her image. She was a FOP – friend of Russian boss Vladimir Putin. She jogged with the Olympic torch toward the stadium in Sochi and played on Russia’s national tennis teams.
The Wall Street Journal said that Sharapova was the “most public face of the new Russian woman – talented, self-assured, ambitious and independent. Until recently, there were almost no such women in Russia.” More than anything, Maria often spoke longingly of her beloved Russian food, family and heritage.
Okay – but you could have fooled us. Sharapova loved American pop culture and stylish Aubrey Hepburn-like black frocks. Sequins and elegance – strike a pose. She lived in LA by the warm Pacific, dated a hot Laker, shot cold penetrating glances to those who crossed her, and was simply the most sizzling CEO anyone could imagine.
From the get-go, her gruff, pushy, but oh-so-successful dad Yuri imagined she would be a winner. “My baby’s a champion,” he gushed after her first great triumph. “She was born to be a champion,” he told me.
He came to America to seek his family’s fortune through his slim kid. He pedaled with her on his bicycle to Florida tennis lessons, then took her to California ,where the Dutch drill-meister Robert Lansdorp perfected her punishing groundstrokes. Flat and fast – they were as good or better than those of Jennifer Capriati or Lindsay Davenport. Okay, her movement was suspect. Her serve was a weapon one moment (or season) and an adventure the next. She famously admitted that when she played on clay she was like “a cow on ice.” And Simon Barnes asserted that with Maria, “There is a strange kind of awkwardness about her. She’s a rare mixture of grace and clumsiness, like a young horse that forgets how to count up to four in legs.”
Some just dismissed her. After all, before Maria, blond supermodels just didn’t win Slams. But Maria insisted, “If people want me to be a tennis babe, I’m sorry. I’m not going to be one…People forget that Anna [Kournikova] isn’t in the picture anymore…I’m not the next Kournikova – I want to win matches!”
But, ouch, there was no escaping the most controversial grunt in tennis. John Newcombe said it was “legalized cheating.” The tabloids claimed her sound was almost as loud as the 110 decibels heard when a lion roars. Mary Carillo once noted that Maria was “not hitting as hard as she’s sounding. She’s over-grunting.” While fans were turned off by those sounds, analysts were turned on by her dazzling talent.
In ’04 IT’s Matthew Cronin predicted, “Sharapova has all the tools to make it big…She’s got what it takes: more than a little ‘tude and a seemingly unswerving commitment to greatness…[If] Sharapova goes deep in ‘04, she’ll nudge the likes of Olga Morozova, Natasha Zvereva and Kournikova into a certain Gulag of oblivion.”
Maria did just that. Just months after Cronin’s prediction, 17-year-old Sharapova scored the greatest breakout win in women’s tennis history when she shocked Serena Williams to claim the 2004 Wimbledon. Then, rather incredibly, Donald Trump spoke of the rare allure of Maria’s shoulders and claimed that Serena was intimidated by Sharapova’s looks. He said Williams “looked across the court and said to herself, ‘I’m playing against a supermodel.’ I think it had an impact.”
But all her heady success attracted hefty criticism. Writer T.J. Simmers complained that the 17-year-old was too young to appear in a sexy WTA ad. Martina Hingis wondered, “What will happen when her first great love comes along?” Carillo suggested that, in the future, Sharapova will “screw it up, not personally, but she’ll screw it up the way Capriati did and Kournikova did. Phenoms tend to get their lives screwed up, whether they want to or not.”
But Sharapova just shrugged her considerable shoulders and literally pronounced, “It’s Maria time!” as she went on to have one of the great careers in WTA history. A social media juggernaut, she was on the cover of hundreds of magazines. Few others this side of Billie Jean, Chrissie, Martina or the Williamses brought more attention to the game.
The toughest of three generations of fierce Russians, she was No. 1 for 25 weeks and won each of the four Slams and a total of five majors. She could dominate or grind, score quick knockout wins, prevail in exhausting marathons, and was adept at avoiding disastrous upsets. During matches we saw her world-class poker face as she delved deep into her own private universe. Her laser-like focus never wavered. Maria didn’t so much “stroke” her way to victory. She willed herself to it. You’d sense it, see it, hear it. Claw, grunt, fist-pump – she was always in the moment. One withering stare after another, cold and penetrating, said it all: “Don’t mess with Sharapova.”
Her ferocity was louder than her grunts. Her father said he didn’t care about the world or his wife – just himself and his daughter. But Maria’s imperious ways, her grunts, wealth and beauty were too much for some. She was called a “glamazon.” Russian Alla Kudryavtseva said, “It was very pleasant to beat Maria. I don’t like her outfit…It was one of the motivations to beat her.” Conchita Martinez contended, “What girls like Sharapova want to do is sell at any cost…If they told me that I must play in a bikini, I wouldn’t do it.”
But Sharapova contended, “Beauty sells…I’m not going to make myself ugly.” Fair enough, but Maria didn’t do much to make herself popular, either. To her fellow Russians, she was an American with an insufferable father. Anastasia Myskina said she wouldn’t play Fed Cup if Maria was on the team.
Maria defended her lone-wolf, not-so-popular-in-the-locker room ways. She said, “It’s tough playing tennis and being Mother Teresa at the same time and making everyone happy. You’re playing an individual sport and fighting for every single point.”
Ana Ivanovic was perplexed. “It’s strange,” said the personable Serb, “Sharapova doesn’t say a word to anyone, whereas I talk, smile, laugh.”
But no one laughed her way to the bank more than Maria, a profitable practice which didn’t please all. Brit Dan Jones harshly charged that Maria was “a shameful corporate huckbag with about as much ethical integrity as a bag of salt…Really, Maria, have a bit of shame.”
Instead, Maria had pride. In 2008 when she suffered a devastating shoulder injury, many presumed she was done. “She knows what she has to put herself through, emotionally and mentally, to be 100 percent committed to playing tennis,” said broadcaster Annabel Croft. “I can’t see her coming back.”
But, Maria bravely forged a comeback. All the while, critics harped on her grunting (as if Jimmy Connors didn’t grunt). At last year’s French Open, Ben Rothenberg observed that she sounded “yelpier than usual, like a Bichon Frise when the postman comes.” Sharapova made no audible adjustments.
Yes, she had a wretched 2-19 record against Serena. She never broke that imposing code. But she herself admitted that she was “a stubborn piece” and soldiered on. She confided that if it weren’t for tennis, “I’d be back home helping my mother pick raspberries.”
Instead she picked up a great game, gained more appeal than most any star in the history of women’s athletics, became a UN Goodwill Ambassador, was a major force for healing at the Chernobyl nuclear site, and shined bright on magazine covers and center courts. And what other Russian-American has come close to doing that?