In 2004, when 17-year-old Maria Sharapova upset Serena Williams in the final at Wimbledon, women’s tennis had one of those moments of high drama that comes along one or two times a generation. Sharapova was the 15th seed, which made the upset especially dramatic. She was also tall, blonde and skilled at speaking English, which made her an instant international star.
Much is expected of an international sports star, and Sharapova proved to be as hard a worker off the court as she was trained to be on the court. As a child, she left her mother behind in Siberia and moved with her father to Florida, where, every day, she was greeted by Nick Bollettieri and a basket of 1,000 tennis balls. Yuri Sharapova was known in those days for his volatility, and young Maria soon became adept at self-discipline and professional detachment. Her Wimbledon championship proved how solidly she and her father had worked toward their considerable goals, and Sharapova slid into a huge spotlight with relative ease.
The endorsements poured in, and, despite being thrust into sudden superstardom and all the negativity that entails, the tall young Russian used her confidence and her self-deprecating wit to handle matters in a way that made her seem older than her years.
Sharapova didn’t win another big title again until the end of 2006, but that victory, the U.S. Open championship, was so dramatic, she again captured world-wide attention. By this time, she had become a tennis fashion icon, and she showed up at the U.S. Open night matches wearing a rhinestone-studded black dress that would have been over-the-top for anyone else, but which appropriately defined the glamorous Russian as a new kind of champion. Playing near-perfectly, she swept the field, defeating Justine Henin decisively (6-0 in the third set) in the final.
The last major Sharapova won was the 2008 Australian Open, in which she defeated Ana Ivanovic in the final. By this time, Sharapova had also won 16 other titles, including the 2004 WTA tour championships, and had spent some time ranked as the world #1. Whether letting out her trademark scream when she smacked the ball, bantering with the sports media, or charmingly persuading us to buy a digital camera, she was as close to being a household name as any female athlete could be.
Her critics said that Sharapova’s game was too limited—that she relied too much on her serve and her stinging, finely angled ground strokes. Both her first and second serve were superior, and—while her style of tennis certainly had its limitations—she executed it well enough to take control of big matches.
In 2006, Sharapova had a problem with her shoulder, but recovered. In 2008, her shoulder bothered her again, and though tests were run, her doctor failed to notice that she had a torn rotator cuff. Sharapova played with this significant injury for three months, and then got the bad news from another doctor. She went into a long and intense rehab, and when she tried to hit serves again, her pain was such that she had to start rehab all over. The rehab required her to be out for ten months.
When she returned to the tour, the big-serving Russian began to double-fault repeatedly. She changed her service motion, changed it back, changed it again, and continued to struggle with the shot that had helped her win three major titles. She was upset in the first round of the 2010 Australian Open, and didn’t get past the round of 16 in the three other majors.
Some say Sharapova, who now holds 22 tour titles, will never recover that form again. In sports, no matter how good you are, any sort of vulnerability can cause others to pass you by. Other players on the tour are now big threats on hard courts, where Sharapova once ruled, and opponents do not fear her the way they once did. It is not unreasonable to conclude that the Russian’s best days are behind her.
However, there is another way of looking at this story, and that is through the eyes of the little girl who lived without her mother for years so that she could hit 1,000 tennis balls a day in a foreign country. Anyone who has ever seen the look in Sharapova’s eyes when she wins—or when she loses—knows that, whatever her flaws, being a quitter isn’t one of them.
Look for big things in 2011 from Maria Sharapova, I recommend watching her.