Grit Behind the Glory
CNBC’s Tania Bryer speaks exclusively to tennis superstar Maria Sharapova
More than a decade has passed since Maria Sharapova danced around Wimbledon’s Centre Court holding the Venus Rosewater Dish aloft in triumph.
Then an overwhelmed 17-year-old coming to terms with winning her first Grand Slam title, she has gone on to become one of the wisest heads and most influential figures on the women’s tour.
Now aged 27 and with five Grand Slam titles to her name (not to mention a bank balance that ranked her at number one in Forbes’ 2014 list of the world’s richest sportswomen), it is easy to forget the challenges Sharapova has overcome to reach this point. In a wide-ranging interview, she talks honestly about leaving Sochi at the age of seven to join the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, the injury that could have ended her career and why she’s more than happy not to have any friends on the WTA Tour.
You were only seven years old and didn’t speak any English when you left your mum in Sochi and moved to America to join the Bollettieri Academy. Was that a tough time?
“What was interesting about the process was I really enjoyed being in this new environment and in a new country. The process of the move to the US for me was like an educational process. I was doing something that I loved, I was learning a new language and every day I was surrounded by kids trying to become tennis players. You look back now and you think: ‘That was a really tough process.’ But, in the moment, I never felt like that.”
You spent a lot of time on your own, with your father working hard to support you. Did that help to prepare you for the lonely life of a professional tennis player?
“Being independent as a seven-year-old girl means you learn how to handle situations on your own. You learn about the process of life and about who you are. When I was staying at the academy, I was surrounded by girls who were 15 or 16 years old, so they were at a very different stage of life to me. I was trying to develop a tennis dream, and it was more of a social aspect for them. When I did see my father, it was almost like a gift. I was so happy. We would spend time on the court together, and he’d see how my development was going and give me tips. Those days were really nice.”
Is there a particular memory that has stayed with you from that time?
“When we got our own little apartment, we didn’t have a car and the academy was about a 10-minute drive away. So my father took the basket off the front of his bicycle and we rode there early in the morning – my first lesson was at 6.30am and he had to get to work – with me sitting on the front. I didn’t actually like it because I thought the bicycle was very cute with the basket on it.” [Laughs]
What was it like being away from your mum for all that time?
“I was very close to my mum. She had me when she was only 20 years old, so I followed her everywhere. She was still at university, so she would take me to the library with her and get me my own set of books. It was definitely an adjustment for me to not have that feminism – that female voice – around. We’d send pictures back and forth in the mail and she’d say: ‘Where did your father get that dress? I don’t know if I like that.’ [Laughs]
“I missed that opinion and I missed having her by my side. When I did see her, though, it was another adjustment because when you don’t spend a couple of years together and then you’re reacquainted, it’s almost like you have another life.”
There’s some Trans World Sport footage from an interview with you at the academy when you were about 14, and you seemed to have a natural confidence in front of the camera. Where do you think that came from?
“I think tennis in general teaches you so many things. Sometimes, when I lose a really tough match, I come home and the first thing I say [laughing] is: ‘I don’t wish this upon any of my future children.’ You feel like you worked extremely hard and you’ve basically failed in front of thousands of people. That’s what losing is, y’know. [Laughs] But I learned so much through the process of becoming a tennis player. It’s not just about hitting forehands and backhands. The sport teaches you growth and maturity. You have no choice, really, because it’s about handling yourself around people who look at your potential and try to make the most out of it. You have to be smart from a very young age. I see that so much more now.”
You were just 17 when you won your first Grand Slam at Wimbledon. Do you remember how you felt standing on Centre Court holding the trophy aloft?
“Oh, disbelief. Even though champions were quite young 10 or maybe 15 years ago, it was becoming more rare to be in the finals of a Grand Slam as a 17-year-old. Physically I didn’t feel developed enough to be able to play for two weeks and handle playing match after match. I certainly wasn’t the fastest, either. I was still growing at 17 years old, y’know; I still felt unbalanced and I was kind of all over the place [laughs]. But, mentally, I was ready for the challenge because in my mind I had envisioned being a Grand Slam champion.”
You beat the top seed and defending champion Serena Williams that day, beginning an on-court rivalry lasting to this day. Did you ever think you would be battling each other for so long?
“When I first got on tour, Serena was somewhere in the middle of her career and I was a 17-year-old girl who was just finding my feet on the tour. Now, 10 years later, she’s at the peak of her career, while I’m number two in the world. I don’t think anyone believed that after 10 years we would still be rivals. It’s an incredible story, because I started out wanting to be like her. I remember her coming to the academy and watching her on the practice court with her sister. I was only 14 or 15 at the time, and she was a Grand Slam champion. I just wanted to play at tournaments where she was playing. Little did I know that I’d be competing against her for so many years.”
You haven’t beaten her since 2004 [Sharapova has a 2-17 losing record against Serena]. What will it take to get that win?
“A lot. Against a player like Serena, you need to believe and you need to play the best game that you can. No matter what your game style is, no matter how tall or small you are, you need to come out and be able to perform at your highest level. There’s no doubt about that. When Serena’s on, she’s on. She has one of the best serves in the women’s game. She’s an incredible athlete. Her power, her depth on her shots is some of the best in women’s tennis ever – so I think a lot of things must work in order to have a good result.”
What is your relationship like off the court?
“There’s a lot of mutual respect for what we do on the court, there’s no doubt about that. When you work yourself up to a certain level in a professional sport, you know what it takes. I always say I can relate most to athletes, whether it’s tennis or another sport. Once I ran into Michael Jordan. Usually I never get starstruck, but all of a sudden I was like: ‘Wow, my goodness, this is Michael Jordan in front of me.’ You relate to the hard work, the sacrifice and the drive that an athlete really has to have to be at the highest level – and for that reason I have a tremendous amount of respect for her.”
In 2008 you suffered a shoulder injury that put you out for almost a year. How tough was that period for you?
“I had just won my third Slam [the Australian Open], and I felt like this was the peak of my career. I felt like I was going to be better. I played some of my best tennis winning that title. Little did I know I would go from one of the best victories to one of the toughest times, having to go through shoulder surgery. Not many people have had shoulder surgery and become top of their sport again, especially in tennis. My serve was one of my biggest strengths for years, and all of a sudden for six months I lost all my power and I didn’t have any accuracy. I felt like everything was slowing down in one of my biggest strengths. Being out for so long and thinking whether I could get back was probably one of the toughest challenges in my career.”
Your first Grand Slam title after the injury came at the French Open in 2012.
“I always get asked what was my best feeling in a Grand Slam victory. Winning Wimbledon at 17 stands on a pedestal and it will always be one of the most special. But, as an athlete, I think it’s easy to get to a position where you are fearless. You don’t have much experience, you hold the plate [the Venus Rosewater Dish, awarded to the winner of the women’s singles at Wimbledon] as a 17-year-old and you just go through it. But when you’ve endured years of trying to get back to being healthy and challenging yourself on a daily basis to get into a position to win a Major – as I had done before Paris – then I have to say that title was probably physically the most challenging for me to win.”
Especially given that you had never been a particular fan of playing on clay courts…
“I remember in the juniors, I thought the French Open is going to be very tricky for me [laughs]. I challenged myself so much physically to get better there. I improved my fitness, the way I moved on the clay, my stamina and my recovery. Every year I learnt more by playing there, so it was an incredible victory for me – especially after all the questions about whether I could come back from injury. It’s really special. I think that’s why everyone works so hard to come back from injury – because if you’re able to achieve something post-surgery or post-injury, it’s so meaningful.”
You’ve been quoted as saying that you’re not on the tour to make friends. Is that true, or were you misunderstood?
“On the tour it’s very difficult to create friends. We’re all in this very small bubble, and our main priority is tennis. Just because we all hit a tennis ball for a living it doesn’t necessarily make us friends. When we go away from the court, we have other interests and passions. And many of us have very different support teams around us, including friends that we’ve known since a very young age. I’ve never actually felt the necessity to create friends, because I’ve got friends that I’ve had since I was a young girl and that I’ve met along the way in my career and I’m very happy with them. I don’t feel that, just because I’m going out there to play tennis against them, we need to be going to dinner the night before a match [laughs]. It’s always a little strange to think: ‘Oh, we’re going to go for a drink and socialise, but tomorrow I’ll be facing them in the French Open final.’ I’m not really sure how that works.”
Do you feel that could be misinterpreted by others as you being aloof and not wanting to be friendly?
“In many ways I think I set myself apart by being successful from a very young age. The day after I won Wimbledon, I had so many requests to be friends with people [laughs]. All of sudden it’s like, wow, so many people just wanna be my friend. At that point I became very aware of the situation and I set myself apart from it because I knew who my friends were, I knew who my family was, and I knew who was important to me. So I walked around with horse-blinkers on because I wanted to maintain that same strength and character that I had growing up to become a Wimbledon champion. The tour was never somewhere that I wanted to make friends, so I’m never scared of people saying that I’m not friendly with them because I’ve never really been there to make a best friend.”
You don’t care what others might think of you?
“I don’t care because I’ve been in the sport since I was very young, and when you’re in that environment there are a lot of people who have opinions about you. On a daily basis people write things about you, and I don’t mind because it’s part of the process. I used to get upset when people said things, more about my family than myself. But you have to learn that it’s part of society, especially now with social media and everyone knowing everything that’s happening on a daily basis. But if you focus on every single opinion and have to justify your every action, then you wouldn’t be able to be happy within yourself, and that’s the most important thing. If you’re happy with what you are doing, the opinion of others doesn’t matter.”