Maria Sharapova: grit, guts and glory
Wednesday, October 17, 2012
"No matter how tough it was, no matter how many people didn’t believe in me, I didn’t care and I didn’t listen.
“I could have said: ’I don’t need this.’ I have money, fame, victories. I have Grand Slams.
“But when your love for something is bigger than all those things, you continue to get up in the morning when it’s freezing outside, when you know that it can be the most difficult day.
"You can achieve great things when you don’t listen to all those things.”
So went Maria Sharapova’s victory speech after she lifted the French Open trophy in June, having overwhelmed the Italian Sara Errani to triumph in straight sets.
That victory gave her the illustrious career slam of having won all four Grand Slam titles – a feat only nine other women had previously achieved. Being in the final also took her back to world number one for the first time in nearly four years. But, perhaps most significantly, the Roland Garros crown came after Sharapova’s four-year struggle with injury, when many questioned whether the Russian would ever return to the top.
It was a career-threatening torn rotator cuff in 2008 that kept her out for 10 months and sent her ranking plummeting to 126th in the world. She was not to be beaten, though, returning to the sport in the summer of 2009 to begin the long climb back towards the top.
She finally reached the summit this summer – and now, with the TEB BNP Paribas WTA Championships in Istanbul getting under way on Tuesday, Sharapova has the chance to finish the year with what would be another milestone in her comeback. You have to go all the way back to 2004 for the last time she won the prestigious end-of-season tournament – the same year she first became a Grand Slam champion, becoming the 17-year-old darling of Wimbledon with a comprehensive 6-1, 6-4 defeat of Serena Williams.
She is 25 now, and one of the biggest names in women’s tennis – and indeed women’s sport. But the joys of winning never get old – especially when you’ve had to face the possibility they might be out of reach forever.
You said winning the French Open this year was the “most unique moment of your career”. What did you mean by that?
“Winning that Grand Slam as my first one after my injury – on a surface not many people expected me to do well on – was really meaningful. You put so much work in on the practice court and in the gym, but you never quite know when that will pay off. And when you have experienced those incredible moments of winning Grand Slams before, you really want to feel that emotion – that moment of winning a matchpoint – again. I was really happy it happened in Paris. I couldn’t have asked for a better moment for it.”
Did spending all that time away from the sport change your attitude towards it?
“After the injury I felt like I was starting over again in my career. In a way, I was appreciating what I’d been given and was just grateful to have the opportunity to play tennis again on a daily basis. But I enjoyed the hard work to get back – I never looked at it as a negative, no matter how tough it was. You appreciate it so much more when something’s taken away from you a bit.”
There’s just the TEB BNP Paribas WTA Championships in Istanbul left this season. At the end of a long year, would you really rather be on a beach?
“When you start the year, you have the four majors and you think: ’Oh, the champs are all the way at the end of the season.’ But the goal is always to be one of those eight girls who qualify, because it means you’ve had a really consistent year. I remember qualifying for it for the first time in 2004, and it felt like a bonus because usually the season had finished so early. I still feel like this tournament is a bonus for your accomplishments during the year.”
It’s the sixth time you’ve qualified. Does your experience give you an advantage?
“I think it’s the experience that I have of not playing so many tournaments during the year. A lot of girls usually play a few tournaments in the lead-up to a big one like that, but a lot of my success has come when I’ve had a limited schedule. It gives me a chance to let my body rest and to practise well and be healthy – so that when I go out and compete, even though I might feel rusty for a few games, in the longer stretch of the tournament I feel better.”
The tournament has been held all over the world, from Madrid to Doha and now Istanbul. Where would you like to see it?
“I would actually love to see it go to Brazil. I was there once, and it’s somewhere we haven’t seen too much tennis, but I know there’s so much passion for sport there. Obviously football’s their number one thing, but as far as tennis is concerned I get so much fan mail from there, and I’m sure other players do too. It seems like the sport is really followed in Brazil, so I really hope it goes there.”
The next Olympics will be there. Are you planning to be in Rio, to upgrade the silver medal you won in London this summer?
“It’s tough to say – it’s so far down the line. I usually don’t try to plan too much ahead. I was so looking forward to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, but just a few months before that is when I got my shoulder injury. So that was a real bummer. I try not to look at things that far in advance, but my experience this year was so special that of course I would love to get there – and experience having that chance again.”
You became the first female Russian athlete to have the honour of carrying the flag during the opening ceremony in London. When did you find out you’d been chosen?
“It was crazy; I received a text message from the Russian Olympic Committee in the middle of the French Open, asking me if it was something I’d be interested in doing. [Laughs] I was half asleep and just honestly I couldn’t believe that was even being asked in question form. The Olympics was such a big part of our culture in Russia, so I grew up hoping that one day I could represent the sport of tennis – because it wasn’t very big when I was watching it in the Olympics when I was young. But the visibility of tennis in Russia and the amount of facilities and coaches we have has grown so much - it’s a solid sport there now. So for me to have that honour was incredible.”
Were you nervous?
“It was such a long walk from the athletes’ village to the stadium, with the whole team and all the other countries, that once you got there it felt like the walk around the track was so much shorter than it actually was. I was just trying to focus on making sure the flag was waving the right way and holding it right...”
Tennis aside, food is another passion…
“I know, it’s really pathetic. Every time I do an entry on my website or write a little blog, I always mention food. I think my fans must think I have a problem… I kind of do [laughs]
. But one of the greatest things about travelling is experiencing the different flavours and cultures. And, in Russia, sitting down at the table to eat as a family was such a big part of our lives – eating your grandma’s cooking and baking with the family. I’ve missed it since I moved to the US. I’m always talking about food and I try to cook, but I don’t do it as much as I would like to because from start to finish it’s such a big process. So on training days it’s pretty tough to cook, but on my off days I always do.”
If someone was to put together the perfect menu for you, what would be on it?
“I love the Russian soup, borscht, and then we have this salad which is originally French, called Olivier – but I think the Russians took over it and now they call it the Russian salad. And we have these little dumplings called pelmenis, which are really good – my grandmother makes them really well. Then for dessert I’d want Russian honey cake called medovnik, which is really yummy.”
And now you've even gone and launched your own range of sweets...
“When I came to the US as a kid and I saw these gummy bears and gummy type candy, it was so different to anything I’d ever tried or seen in Russia. I just fell in love with it. A couple of years ago, the name Sugarpova came about, and I put the two together. I really wanted to start my own business, and I thought this would be fun, young and fresh. And everybody loves candy, right?”
Sarah Shephard @sarahsportmag
British Eurosport HD will broadcast the WTA Championships exclusively live, October 23-28. Coverage is also available online and on mobile via the Eurosport Player: eurosportplayer.co.uk
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