First things first: Maria Sharapova has not had a disappointing career. Nope. That is not worthy of serious consideration — not with five majors, not with a career Grand Slam, not with a serve and shoulder injuries which understandably limited the height of her ceiling at multiple points in her tennis journey. Sharapova has reached 10 major finals, won a Fed Cup, won a WTA Finals, and earned a silver medal in the 2012 London Olympics. That is far too much to consider “disappointing.”
You are waiting for the word “however,” though, aren’t you? You can feel an impending change in direction, right?
You are correct.
HOWEVER… as much as Sharapova has achieved, and as much as she has done with her abilities — it is considerable — it is nevertheless striking to look back at the Open Era of professional tennis and recall the 2004 Wimbledon women’s singles final. That Saturday at the All-England Club did indeed launch Sharapova’s career, but these 14 years later, it did not have the transformative effect on tennis one might have anticipated at the time.
Go back to Roger Federer’s 2001 fourth-round win over Pete Sampras at Wimbledon. That event not only launched a career, but became a transformative moment in the history of tennis, given the many ways Federer has changed the sport. It was reasonable to think that when Sharapova, just 17 years old, blasted Serena Williams off Centre Court on a sunny Saturday at SW19, tennis had found a great new rival for Serena, who had shown by that time that she was likely to be the more successful and dominant Williams sister.
Yet, that moment of brilliance from a teenager who burst onto the scene — while leading into a highly successful career — did not change the face of tennis. It did not transform the nature of Serena Williams’ career. It merely interrupted it, representing an aberrational occurrence instead of a harbinger of things to come.
It is impossible to ignore the reality that Wimbledon grass and Halle or Newport grass are very different beasts. It wasn’t always this way, but in the 21st century, Wimbledon grass has played very differently compared to the 1980s, when the courts were chewed up and a pervasive serve-and-volley style on tour caused more portions of the court to absorb wear and tear, causing more bad bounces. Therefore, when Sharapova let loose her howitzer-level groundstrokes on sturdy Wimbledon lawns in 2004, it seemed that a fruitful grass-court career was about to emerge. When an 18-year-old Sharapova reached the 2005 Wimbledon semifinals and a 19-year-old did the same in 2006, that notion was affirmed more than refuted.
Sharapova returned to the Wimbledon final only once since 2004.
Her career has been a substantial success, but there is still a sense of “what might have been.”
A natural and instinctive — and sympathetic — response to the above statement is to say that Serena Williams has stood in Sharapova’s way. If Andy Roddick had been born seven years earlier, he might have won four or five Wimbledons, but since he shared the stage with Roger Federer, he was denied a single title at The Big Dubya. One could advance the same line of argument with Sharapova, and to an extent, the claim is valid. Serena did beat Sharapova in the semifinals or finals of a number of major tournaments after the 2004 Wimbledon final, but over the course of 14 years, you might be surprised to realize that the number of such occasions is… five.
Five times? In 14 years? That seems small, does it not?
(The occasions in which Serena beat Maria in the semis or final at a major after 2004 Wimbledon: 2005 Australian — SF; 2007 Australian — F; 2013 French — F; 2015 Australian — F; and 2015 Wimbledon — SF.)
You might also be surprised by these details about Sharapova’s career at the majors to date:
By the time she turned 21 in April of 2008, Sharapova had already won a majority of her five major titles (3) and had made her most recent appearance in a U.S. Open final (2006).
Though the French Open is the only major she has won more than once — which therefore gives it an undeniable level of primacy in her career as long as that fact remains in place — the Australian Open, if measured by semifinal-or-better performances, is her most consistent major (7 such results; no other major has more than 5).
While the Australian Open is Sharapova’s most consistent major tournament, the U.S. Open — also on hardcourts — is, by the same metric mentioned above (SFs or better), her least consistent major. She has only three SF-or-better results in New York. It is also the only major where she has reached only one final. (4 in Australia, 3 at Roland Garros, 2 at Wimbledon)
Maria Sharapova will always be an example of a great tennis lesson for young players. The lesson: No matter how globally famous or wealthy you are, you still have to work for what you achieve, no shortcuts. Don’t coast on your fame or rely on your reputation. Put in the work. Honor the value of labor. The way Sharapova fights for every point despite ample reasons to cruise through life and hit the “easy button” will always be her foremost gift to younger generations of tennis players. Her career is, indisputably, a success story.
Nevertheless, when turning back to the day at Wimbledon when a 17-year old blitzed Serena Williams, it is not striking that Sharapova went on to forge a successful career. What is striking is that Sharapova did not leave a bigger imprint on women’s tennis. It feels like a subtle criticism, but it’s not. It is merely a statement of surprise, these 14 years later.