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Navratilova: Maria Sharapova was the ultimate competitor

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Maria Sharapova

Martina Navratilova assesses the storied career of five-time major winner Maria Sharapova following her retirement from the sport.

Above all else, Maria Sharapova was a competitor on the tennis court, as intense and as ferocious as anyone who has ever played the sport. And while competitiveness is celebrated in men, and seen as a big plus, women are quite often put down for it. I can relate to that, and I think that was sometimes tough for Sharapova.

But Sharapova, who announced last week that she was saying goodbye to tennis, didn’t ever change who she was as a person, or let go of who she was as an athlete, just because other people didn’t happen to like her competitive nature. Let me put it this way, you wouldn’t have wanted her as your opponent, she wouldn’t take her foot off the gas even for a moment.

Maria Sharapova

Throughout her career, Sharapova marched to the beat of her own drum – she wasn’t in tennis to win popularity contests, whether with the public or her peers, and perhaps she wasn’t always as appreciated as she could have been, but she did what she needed to win, and that worked for her.

Right to the end of her career, Sharapova still had the same mental toughness that had always defined her. That never left her. That’s why the last couple of years must have been so tough for her, as she was trying just as hard as she had always done. Her mind hadn’t changed, but her body was saying: ‘Naah, it’s not going to happen anymore.’ That had to be frustrating for her because the effort was there but the results weren’t, so I wasn’t surprised to hear she had decided to hang it up. I had been expecting this news for a while.

Maria Sharapova

While Sharapova won Wimbledon at 17, I don’t think that was her greatest achievement. In my view, that Wimbledon run wasn’t as impressive as her two French Open titles in her twenties. In her early years on the tour, as a clay-court player she called herself a “cow on ice” because of the way she was moving and playing on the surface. Back then, her game was much better suited to hard courts and grass than it was to clay. But Sharapova kept at it until clay became her best surface at the end – the French Open was the only major that she won twice.

Those two titles at Roland Garros were an illustration of how Sharapova made the most of what she had, and how she adapted her game. While Sharapova was hitting huge forehands and backhands, she knew that she wasn’t the best all-round player so she worked at her game. She improved her drop-shot and her game at the net.

Maria sharapova

Up until her shoulder injuries and surgeries, Sharapova had a great serve. But after her shoulder surgery her serve was never the same again. More than anything else within her game, be it her body or head, her serve let her down the most. And when your serve isn’t there for you, it really bleeds into the rest of your game both physically and emotionally.

Sharapova will be partly judged by her record against Serena Williams. Unfortunately for Sharapova, you can be the most mentally tough player in the world but sometimes there will be a player you just don’t match up that well against, and that was Williams.

Maria-Sharapova---2020-Vanity-Fair-Oscar-Party-in-Beverly-Hills

That match-up against Williams just didn’t favor her, particularly as the American certainly served a lot better. Sharapova was good enough against everyone else but Williams always got up for her matches against the Russian. To her credit, Sharapova never relented in those matches, that wasn’t in her nature.

I’ll remember Sharapova’s career for her sheer competitiveness, for her never giving anything less than her absolute best.

Maria Sharapova Leaves A Storied Legacy
Maria sharapova

Clenched fist, true grit: there will never be another Maria Sharapova.

One of only seven women to win all four majors at least once in the Open era, Sharapova’s retirement due to injuries not only robs tennis of one of its the fiercest competitors but also of one of the world’s most recognizable female athletes who transcended her sport and opened tennis up to new markets.

One of the most ferocious baseliners in the women’s game, with a game built around aggressive ground strokes and mental strength, Sharapova won 36 career titles, including five majors, an Olympic silver medal, held the No. 1 ranking for 21 weeks and amassed $38 million in prize money.

But after 28 years of playing tennis, Sharapova’s body can no longer deal with competing at the highest level, she told the New York Times in an interview this week.

Maria Sharapova

One of Sharapova’s biggest assets was her never-say-die attitude, laser-like focus and work ethic, both on and off the court, which has inspired generations of young tennis players.

“She’s great fighter. As dedicated as someone can really be in our sport,” top-ranked Novak Djokovic told reporters in Dubai after he heard the news.

“Maria, you inspired millions of people with your passion for the game and we thank you for that,” rising Russian star Karen Khachanov wrote on Twitter. “You have set an example for everybody in many ways. Humble, determined and a true champion.”

Just 17, Sharapova had become a global star virtually overnight when she defeated then two-time champion Serena Williams of the U.S. in the finals of Wimbledon in 2004. A year later, Sharapova rose to the No. 1 ranking, the first woman from Russia to do so.

Maria Sharapova and Serena WIlliams

Her defeat of Serena Williams on Centre Court turned Sharapova into one of the world’s most famous sportswomen, who would end up rewriting the rules about sports marketing and female athletes. She amassed more than $325 million in earnings, both on and off the court, during her career, according to Forbes.

“From the day Maria Sharapova won her first Wimbledon at age 17, she has been a great champion,” WTA Tour co-founder Billie Jean King, who first met the Russian when she was 13, said on Twitter. “A 5x major champion and a former World No. 1, her business success is just as impressive as her tennis achievements.”

Guided by her long-time agent at management agency IMG, Max Eisenbud, Sharapova became a global fashion and style icon, whose business empire not only included a string of endorsements with blue-chip companies including Tag Heuer, Porsche, Evian and Avon but also a successful candy and chocolate line founded in 2012, Sugarpova. She was ranked as the world’s top-paid female athlete for 11 straight years by Forbes.

Maria Sharapova holds boyfriend

Mastering the slow red clay of Roland-Garros in 2012 and 2014, where she once famously compared herself to “a cow on ice” was perhaps her greatest achievement on a tennis court. Her first French Open victory came three years after a potentially career-ending shoulder injury which required surgery on a torn rotator cuff.

Sharapova’s rise to the top having escaped the aftermath of a nuclear disaster in the former Soviet Union was nothing short of remarkable.

Sharapova was born 19 April, 1987 in Nyagan, western Siberia, not long after her parents, Yuri and Yelena, moved to the remote oil town from their hometown of Gomel, Belarus to escape the fall-out from the nearby Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. Two years later, the family moved to the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where Sharapova started playing tennis at the age of four.

Eighteen-time major winner Martina Navratilova spotted the talented Maria a year later at an event in Moscow, and advised her father to move the family to the U.S.

Maria sharapova and husband

This was easier said than done. Maria and Yuri moved to the U.S. in 1994, but had to leave Yelena behind for two years because of visa restriction issues and lack of money. But Maria was only seven years old, and deemed too young to start training at a tennis academy. For the next two years, her father worked low-paid jobs in construction to pay for her coaching. When Maria was nine, the family were finally reunited and she earned a $30,000 scholarship to train at the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Florida.

Eight years later, she won the Wimbledon title.

Although Sharapova would also beat Williams at the 2004 WTA Finals, her rivalry with the now 23-time major singles winner was lopsided, with the former top-ranked American taking 20 matches in a row after that year.

Maria Sharapova

The legacy Sharapova leaves behind is in some ways an unfinished one. Struggling with a shoulder injury and inflammation in both forearms, Sharapova told the New York Times she had been in pain for much of the past two years, as she made a comeback to tennis following a 15-month ban for taking the banned substance meldonium in 2016.

Her body left her unable to reach the same heights as before her shock admission in March 2016 that she had failed a doping test after failing to notice the drug in question had been banned at the start of that year by the World Anti-Doping Agency. An initial two-year ban was eventually reduced to 15 months, with the highest sports court, CAS, saying the former world No. 1 wasn’t an “intentional doper.”

Ironically, the doping ban would in fact end up extending Sharapova’s career by a few more years.

“If (the suspension) didn’t happen, this probably would have been her last year,” IMG’s Eisenbud told CNN in a phone interview in 2017.

Before the doping suspension, Sharapova had been struggling with multiple injuries. “Her body was in bad shape,” Eisenbud said.

Although Eisenbud had been planning for Sharapova’s retirement for years, with the Sugarpova brand and other deals in place for when her career would eventually finish, and a stint at Harvard Business School and an internship at the NBA during her ban, no longer being a professional tennis player may take some getting used to.

Maria sharapova

When asked if closing a business deal was similar to winning and competing for major tennis titles, Sharapova said in an interview in 2018: “Everything that you put into it previously, you have to pour out onto the court, every fear that you’ve faced before, you have to bring out onto the court. You have to be powerful, but yet you have to handle being vulnerable at moments when things don’t go your way.

That, I don’t know if I will ever have that feeling when I am being a businesswoman, because it is just an experience that is so unique, and that’s why I still continue to do this, because I have that passion of figuring things out and getting it done, whether it’s a tough day, or whether it’s a great day.”

In an exclusive essay announcing her retirement for Vogue and Vanity Fair, Sharapova said: “Looking back now, I realize that tennis has been my mountain. My path has been filled with valleys and detours, but the views from its peak were incredible. After 28 years and five Grand Slam titles, though, I’m ready to scale another mountain—to compete on a different type of terrain.”

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