“The whole year was liberating”
She is a tennis icon and the best-earning sportswoman in the world. After a doping offense, Maria Sharapova had to take another step. The Russian speaks exclusively about her long journey with «SI Sport».
Maria Sharapova, you’ve been a part of innumerable photo shoots. Nevertheless, it’s very obvious that you’re still really enjoying yourself. Does one feel happy in the skin of a very attractive woman?
The word attractive is not one I associate myself with.
Don’t you like to be called attractive? If not, we could put together a great headline.
I don’t mean it like that. I just don’t run around all day long speaking to myself trying to find out what or who I am. It’s not important for me.
Success produces societal status. And the status produces an aura. Could you describe your aura please?
It’s hard to assess the energy or the kind of charisma one radiates. But I hope that I at least come over as passionate, natural and genuine. And that I come with a little bit of humour.
Recently you’ve had to almost solely answer questions about your doping case. You’ve accepted your ban and now you want to move forward.
I feel the way I dealt with it was simply the right thing to do. Right from the start, I was honest and truthful. We made a mistake, we are aware of that.
What did you do with all the leisure time during the ban?
Something of everything. When you’re always on the road and competing at tournaments, to a large extent you lose some of the sense of home, of family and friends. For me, having so much time felt like a gift. I was able to finally adapt to the needs of the people close to me. Instead of everything revolving around me.
What were the highlights?
That I could be spontaneous. That I could go where I wanted. That I could go on trips with people that invited me. I love having a tight schedule. But the whole year to be honest was so liberating.
After the lack of match practice, have you lost any of your mental strengths?
When practicing, one simply can’t attain a certain level of concentration. It was something I lacked. It was an interesting position to be in as when you start playing at such a young age, then you basically have it within you. I really did have to specifically work very hard at it again.
You recently celebrated your 30th birthday, how much of your fighting spirit is left within you?
Fighting is a part of my character. I know, and my opponent also knows, that I simply don’t give up no matter whether I’m having a good day or a bad one. I’m a perfectionist but I also know that I’m not perfect. It’s why I need the motivation to get better. Should I ever no longer want to push myself, then there’s no sense in continuing.
At the moment, one of your toughest opponents is the rankings computer. Currently you are a long way off qualifying automatically for the four Grand Slams. How do you want to change things?
By flying to tournaments and competing. From one tournament to the next.
You once said that you were born a warrior. Is tennis a kind of civilised variation of a duel.
What I meant only has something to do with my work ethic. You’ve basically already won so many matches long before you go out onto court. You can force your brain to continue working, also at the times when nobody is watching or when it’s too cold, when it’s too hot, when it’s early in the morning or late at night. Also, when you’ve played five days in a row and the body basically doesn’t want to carry on. They’re the moments when you enjoy your little personal victories that you need before achieving the big wins.
Have you always concentrated on tennis?
I did rhythmic gymnastics and quite liked it. And a little bit of boxing.
You’re quite tall for gymnastics.
That’s right, I started growing and then that was that.
You once mentioned that you had a tough childhood. Can you remember any details?
There are a few. Moving to another country as a seven-year old girl for two years alone with her father. And nobody can really help there. Later you forget it again. But lots of memories came flooding back in the last few years when I was writing my book. Then you think, “wow”. My family went through a lot.
Was there enough money for food and rent?
Yes. And there was love and the best intentions.
How much does it annoy you when somebody like John McEnroe asserts that tennis players, he specifically named Serena Williams, are, compared to the men, simply not good enough?
When I was younger, I experienced how Serena and Venus Williams fought like crazy for equal treatment. I know how difficult it must have been. And I know what Billie Jean King achieved so that we could arrive at a position where women are given equal prize money as men. And then when John McEnroe appears in a talk show trying to advertise his book, it creates headlines. But it’s has nothing to do with reality.
Have we now left the subject behind us?
We’ve still got a long way to go. It’s not just about equal treatment of men and women, it’s about respect. Taking the blows is not easy. They’re real setbacks.
Respect is a good cue. Which athletes do you particularly respect and admire?
There’s a lot. However, the main thing I understand is tennis. The sacrifices you have to make, the commitment, the physical and mental stress, simply everything. Tennis is not just about hitting a ball. I know what it’s like to be happy, but also to be lonely. I talk a lot about Serena. I respect how she keeps going at an age in which she’s already achieved so much. It’s incredible, the passion, the fighting spirit.
You theoretically had the chance, like so many teenagers in America, to go to college but the career as a professional sportswoman would have stood in the way. Do you have the feeling that you’ve missed out on something?
No way. What I was given – an upbringing in tennis – has more than offset it. For sure I don’t have a degree. I don’t have a stamp on a piece of paper. Instead I’ve got a degree in life and one that you can never get in a lecture room.
And business-wise you’re one of the most successful athletes. What do you treat yourself to?
I’d love to invest more in modern art. I love architecture and art. But I need more time and have to find out more about the subjects. I want to improve my education. I want to go to Art Basel. But it’s never fitted into my schedule. It’s not really about the financial aspects. I have paintings that really aren’t that expensive. But when I return home and see them, it makes me very happy.
You’re a Russian living in America. In the Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin era, the relations between USA and Russia are very tense. Where do you stand? Do you have both passports?
No, only the Russian. When people ask me about Russia then I say to them that they themselves have to get to know the country. I can’t adequately put into words what I like. It’s about my family, about my culture, about the mentality. On the other hand, I’ve got used to the USA. To the life, to the people, to the influences and the culture. America is not so dynamic like other countries. But it’s given me opportunities and chances. One can achieve things here simply and easily. It gives me a feeling of security. I have the same feelings in Russia where I speak my mother tongue and can be together with my family in Sochi. As for politics, I follow them too little to have a profound opinion.
After your ban, you’re back working with Nike. The company that gave Michael Jordan a huge brand name after his career. Are you striving for something similar?
For sure. I’ve already done a lot so that one day, hopefully, I can also build up something in business life. There’s already been a few little projects. I love it. And I’d like to have more of the same. But, at the moment, I’ve still got a racket in my hand. I’ve not gone away yet.