Maria Sharapova Serves Success On and Off the Court
By Ann Liguori
Maria Sharapova, as both an athlete and a businesswoman, is a powerful force of positive energy, drive, strength, and intelligence—the kind of role model you wish more girls and young women would emulate. We connected just before she departed for London to participate in this year’s Summer Olympics—her first time at the games. A shoulder injury and the eventual surgery that sidelined her for more than 10 months in 2008 and into 2009 prevented her from competing in Beijing in 2008, but this summer, the honor of becoming the first Russian woman to carry the flag at the opening ceremony quickly muted that painful memory. Winning a silver medal didn’t hurt either.
This past June, Sharapova became the 10th woman in tennis history to complete the career Grand Slam—winning all four majors—when she won the French Open title. She had waited four long, difficult years for this recognition, and many thought it would never happen. “Most people thought her career was over after the surgery,” notes former coach Nick Bollettieri, who first began coaching Sharapova when she arrived at the IMG Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Florida at 9 years old. “Only her strong determination, willpower, and support team brought her back.”
To return and win a major after injuries is a remarkable achievement, but perhaps just as amazing is Sharapova’s off-the-court prestige. Forbes has ranked her the top earning female athlete for the past eight years, and she maintains substantial involvement with the many brands with which she collaborates, including Nike, Evian, TAG Heuer, Samsung, and Cole Haan, for which she developed her own collection. Inspired by the street style of women she observed during her travels from New York to Paris and Tokyo, Sharapova helped design the Bacara, which has become Cole Haan’s best-selling ballet flats.
On August 20, she’s launching a new company, Sugarpova, a line of candy available at freestanding Sugarpova boutiques, It’Sugar, Henri Bendel, and online, featuring signature products such as Sugarpova cheeky gummy bears, high heels, purses, and sunglasses, and tennis gum balls. “I’ve always had a passion for food, and I have a huge sweet tooth, as well,” says Sharapova. “I want to have as many opportunities as I can in my career while I have the time and energy and also set up my career for when I’m done playing tennis.”
HAMPTONS: How does it feel to be the first woman to carry the flag in the Olympics opening ceremony for Russia?
MARIA SHARAPOVA: Pretty incredible; it’s such an honor. I grew up in Russia watching the Olympics—it was such a big part of our culture—and at that time, tennis wasn’t as popular (in Russia) as it is now. How big the sport is over there this year as opposed to when I was watching it as a young girl makes it extra special.
H: How important would winning a medal be?
MS: I’m looking forward to the entire experience. As tennis players, we’re so used to going to the same tournaments, every year. This will be such a unique atmosphere, and that’s the first thing that I’m looking forward to before I think of the medals.
H: You won the 2004 Wimbledon title, the 2006 US Open, 2008 Australian Open, and this year’s French Open to accomplish the career Grand Slam—only the 10th female in history to have done so. I would imagine that this 2012 French Open title, based on all you went through with your comeback from shoulder surgery, was the sweetest victory of them all?
MS: I probably would not have believed it before I won, but especially after being injured and out of the game for a year, I realized how special it was to fight my way back to the top.
H: Were there moments when you thought you would never win another major title?
MS: The most agonizing part of the process was not being able to come back when I thought I would because as a tennis player, you always have a schedule. I had goals for myself, but I never quite reached those goals. Time just kept going by, and there was pain even after I had the surgeries, so it took a lot longer than I had assumed. But I never thought that I wouldn’t be at the top again because if there is a part of you that believes that, it would be tough to motivate yourself.
H: What did it take for you to achieve success during your long comeback?
MS: You have to be realistic because everything you did for so many years comes to a standstill. You have to remain optimistic and extremely positive. I wished I had someone as an example who went through that and came back and that is one of the things, when I look back, that I’m so proud of—if anybody else has to go through this process, I hope I can, in a way, be that role model.
H: Where does that determination come from?
MS: It’s tough to say; I’m not sure if you can learn that. I was really fortunate when I started playing sports at an early age because sports teaches you so many thing about life—results, expectation, sacrifices. My experiences—moving to a new country with my father at a very young age, not seeing my mom for a while, learning a new language—I matured a lot.
H: Your strategy has always been to stand close to the baseline, catch the ball early, hit a flat ball, and avoid long rallies. Did you always play like that? Who instilled that in you?
MS: I worked with many different people in my childhood. I think Robert Lansdorp taught me a lot. He really worked on my strokes and techniques; he taught me to hit with that rhythm and to be solid, no matter how fast the ball comes at you and do it over and over and over again, as much as it takes. Doing that for many years helped me tremendously because I’m tall, and I may not be the strongest girl on tour, but I should be able to use my height and the strength that I do have.
H: Was Robert Lansdorp your most influential coach?
MS: Every coach that my dad took me to was so different, and I think that was one of the best gifts that my dad gave me—his ability to know that not everybody is perfect. My dad was very smart and understanding and knew what I needed in my game at different times. He specifically took me to Robert to instill that kind of mentality to hit ball after ball after ball with the same rhythm, working on the strokes. We went to the Bollettieri Academy because of Nick’s experience, which was priceless. So many people have come and gone in my career but my father is still here, so I’d say he has been the most influential.
H: Nick has described you as a real champion, on and off the court and said you are all business—do you agree?
MS: [Laughs] I’m pretty open. I don’t cut around the bush with conversation; I’m not a politically correct type of person. I’m honest. Nick and I have known each other since I was a young girl, so he knows me quite well.
H: Tell me about your new business venture, Sugarpova?
MS: My manager, whom I’ve been working with since I was 10 years old, brought this to the table, and I thought it was so funny and so creative. Over the past two years, I’ve loved the different flavors of gummys; I thought why not put together something I could have as my own. To own something 100 percent is something that I really wanted to experience.
H: Does creativity and design come naturally to you or is that something you had to learn?
MS: I certainly did not go to design school. Tennis is individual—you don’t have to wear a specific uniform—and in a way, a tennis court is a runway for me. When I was young, I was wearing Nike clothes, and they didn’t have a junior line at the time. The extra smalls were so large on me, and I just remember having to roll up my skirts and cut my tops to fit. I envisioned I’d be able to create clothes for juniors who were having the same problems as I had. I’ve always pictured creating things that are different and unique, and Nike has helped me make that a reality.
H: Do you have one area in business that you want to pursue more than any other?
MS: There are definitely things that I have huge interests in—I’ve had the Nike collection for a few years now, and while it makes a lot of sense to continue to develop it while I play, I hope that evolves past my playing days—[something similar] to the brand Michael Jordan has created.
H: What qualities do you possess that have contributed to your success in business?
MS: I think communication is so important when you work with a company because it’s not just about you and the brand; there are so many different people, so many voices. The most important thing is I really enjoy that creative process. I feel like, for me, it’s also a big learning process; I learn so much from people who have been in different businesses outside of tennis, have evolved their own careers, and have guided me in the right direction.
H: You’re a champion athlete, model, designer, businesswoman, and spokeswoman—which role gives you the most satisfaction?
MS: Definitely being an athlete. Nothing else that I’ve done gives me that same drive, that excitement, the feeling of competitiveness. Every field is competitive, but in tennis it’s such an individual sport, so it’s a spectacular feeling when you’ve achieved things that you’ve really worked for.
H: You’re getting married to Sasha Vujacic, a Slovenian professional basketball player (who played for the Lakers and the Nets), on November 10 in Istanbul, Turkey. Do you also see yourself one day becoming a mom?
MS: For sure! My mother and I have a very close relationship; she had me when she was really young. I’ve missed that train, but absolutely, some day.
photography by stephan würth; Styling by Leila Baboi at leilababoi.com; Hair by John D for Tresemmé at starworksartists.com; Makeup by Fiona Stiles at The Wall Group; Shot on location at simonhousela.com