In the midst of a tennis comeback, five-time Grand Slam singles winner and business entrepreneur Maria Sharapova took time out for a chat.
When I talked with Maria Sharapova early this summer, she had just come off a 15-month ban for use of meldonium, a prescribed heart medication she had been taking for 10 years that had been added to the banned drug list, unbeknown to her, just before she tested positive for it at the 2016 Australian Open. She affirms that she was never advised of the change and fought rigorously to overturn her suspension (which was reduced from two years to 15 months) and clear her name.
Sharapova was in France at the time of our conversation, hoping to get a wildcard entry into the French Open—a championship she had won twice. The wild-card didn’t happen. Wimbledon, the first Major title she won in 2004 as a 17-year-old, shunned her wild-card hopes as well; and now Sharapova awaits the decision of the USTA regarding a wild-card entry for the upcoming US Open, which starts August 28. Sharapova, the 2006 US Open champ, will try to work her way through the US Open qualifying tournament, if need be, a week earlier. [Editor's note: On August 15, Sharapova was awarded wild-card entry to the US Open.]
During the difficult time away from professional competition, the overachiever did plenty to keep busy. She traveled, decorated a new home in California, took a global strategic management class at Harvard Business School, interned at an advertising agency, spent a week shadowing NBA Commissioner Adam Silver (whom she calls “one of the best leaders in sports”), oversaw her expanding Sugarpova confectionary brand, and completed her fiercely honest autobiography, Unstoppable: My Life So Far. Cowritten by Rich Cohen, the compelling read, out in mid-September, is a refreshing look at the tennis superstar’s rags-to-riches story. As a young girl, Sharapova moved to the US from Siberia with her father, taking a bus to Florida with little money in her pocket and not a word of English, to attend the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy (now IMG Academy). The rest, as they say, is history.
How relieved are you to get your side of the story out there?
As a professional athlete, there’s only so much that you’re allowed to keep to yourself, just because of the openness in which you have to carry your life, from press conferences to meet-and-greets to playing in front of thousands of people. But I think the vulnerability with which I was able to finish the book makes it that much better, because during that period I really learned that, as a woman especially, vulnerability is not something that is easy to share. There are so many instances when I was vulnerable or I didn’t feel like I had a lot of power or strength, and I look back at those times, and they made me so strong. Because of that, I share a lot more in the book than I would have if I didn’t go through [that experience].
That’s a part of what I find so compelling about your book, that you’re not hesitant to open up about the suspension.
I didn’t write about what happened until maybe six months or so had passed. I think it was just too tough. But I still had the time to finish those chapters, and to become comfortable with actually writing [down] my feelings and what I was going through. During the moment, and during all the legal procedures, it was really hard to write; it was almost like I wanted it over with, and I just didn’t want my memory and my words to be on paper. Then when I felt like it was the right time, I sat down and just started writing.
You were very descriptive about being suspended. In the book, you wrote that you “had a bottomless hole beneath my life and in I went. Everything I worked for since I was 4 years old, that whole crazy struggle, was suddenly cast in a new, terrible, unfair light. What followed were days of despair.” Then you said you were determined that what happened to you last year would not be the last word. That’s powerful material.
Thank you. It’s the frame of mind that I had from early last year, from the first few days of when I found out that I’d be out of the game for a while. It’s the attitude that I carried with me throughout this whole period, and that also comes from my life experience. As I look back at who I am as a person and what I’ve achieved, it was definitely sad to think that anyone would say I ever took the easy way out. As you read the story, it shares a lot of that tough journey, and the easy way out was never even in the cards! My feelings [were] like, You’re going into this deep hole and yet you still have so many years ahead of you… how are you going to turn this around? How are you going to step up? Those are all things that I think parts of my childhood really prepared me for, and with the way that I’ve been able to handle it. I can say that I’m proud of where I’ve come to be.
Do you feel that you’re even more determined than ever now to get back to the top of the game?
It’s funny, what I play for is so different now than what I played for when I was younger. When you’re away from something for a long time, you realize what you really miss and why. There are so many things in tennis that I don’t really get in other parts in my life: I play for the competition; I play for the victories that I can earn with my team, who also help me be the player that I am, who work with me on a daily basis. There’s a lot that I play for, and what happened was a roadblock. [But] I don’t have that mind-set to use something like that as ammunition. It’s never really been the way that I think.
You said that after Serena Williams beat you in the 2015 Australian Open finals, you looked forward to the coming season, which would be one of your last. I didn’t realize that you were thinking of retirement at that point.
I’d been playing professionally since I was very young, and there were certainly moments in life where you want to feel like a normal person. You want to be there for your friends and for your family, when they need you and not just when you can. Going into another press conference after a loss, and everything that you built on the court, in 15 minutes getting punished for losing a match… it makes you think. And in that period of my career, retirement was very much [on my mind]. I have so many other passions in my life as well, and although tennis has [been] the core of my life in the past 30 years, as a woman, there’s so much to look forward to. I was 28; at that stage, I never really thought that I’d play past Rio [the 2016 Summer Olympics].
What are your thoughts now about retiring?
Sometimes I look back at that moment, and the conversation I had with my manager that I describe in the book, and I remember it so vividly—I’m sitting there and losing a quarter-final match and just being so down... you have to go to the next tournament; you’ve got to pack your bags. And we were talking about a contract renegotiation I just had. It was around the time of my next birthday—I was turning 30—and I told him, “I really want to celebrate my 30th birthday. I don’t want to have any tournament commitments. I just want to celebrate my birthday as a normal human being.” And it was like “bam!” It’s like someone just listens to this and goes, “Oh, you want to experience what normal is like?” So this year I had a completely normal 30th birthday where my friends from all around the world came, and we got to celebrate it, and it was great. But I still felt like I’m missing something in my life. So that was a real eye-opener for me.
“AS I LOOK BACK AT WHAT I’VE ACHIEVED, IT WAS DEFINITELY SAD TO THINK THAT ANYONE WOULD SAY I EVER TOOK THE EASY WAY OUT. THE EASY WAY OUT WAS NEVER EVEN IN THE CARDS!”
So you decided “normal” wasn’t that great?
No, normal is great. Normal is fantastic—having weekends and making plans, and having a schedule that’s just a little bit more predictable than having a tennis schedule. All those things, they were comfortable. When you’re on the tour, and you’re traveling 10 months out of the year, there’s so much unknown. Of course, you know that you have a tournament this week and that week, but you don’t know how you’re going to do. You don’t know in what city you’re going to play next. You don’t know if you’re going to add a tournament. You don’t know what event you’re going to be at, what projects you’re going to be a part of.
It was nice to settle down, to have a bit of a home life. I know it sounds so simple, but just [to have] weekends, and Saturday nights… Saturday nights weren’t any different to me than a Wednesday night as a professional athlete. It was nice to have experiences in school and study for three weeks, and then go do internships. I would have never done those things if I had a full-time professional athlete’s career.
With Serena on a pregnancy break, do you feel like there’s even a better shot for you now to get back to where you were?
I can’t look past the fact that I haven’t played for a long period of time, and you can never replicate what you do in training to playing matches. So I have to look at what’s ahead of me, and that’s the next match and the next tournament. It takes a lot to get that feeling back of the repetitiveness, the match play, of playing five matches in seven days. The physicality of it is very intense, and that’s one of the things a lot of people overlook, the amount of physical strain the body goes through in a week. To be able to do it week in, week out is an adjustment for someone who hasn’t played for a while. So that’s where my mind and my focus is, rather than who I’m going to be playing against.
Sounds like you’re in a really good place right now.
Thanks. I feel like getting back to what I’ve done since I was a young girl just makes me that much happier, being able to be where I feel that I belong, and where I am best at. When you have something taken away from you, you don’t know if you can ever get it back. So I have a lot to [feel] fortunate for!
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN RUSSO/CORBIS VIA GETTY IMAGES