Four years ago, when it was possible — though not confirmed — that Maria Sharapova’s tennis career might be over, I took down notes when I worked for a previous employer and put them in the drafts section of that company’s WordPress blog infrastructure.
I never did personally publish those notes. They were, however, published by someone else after I left that company. I left in June of 2016. These notes were published in August of 2016.
Because that story was published, I can’t reprint it in full here. I can, however, link to the story and share a representative excerpt:
To the very end of her illustrious career as a professional tennis player, Maria Sharapova remained a pleasing and positive puzzle, one the sports world had a hard time solving.
(She)… offered one last revealing glimpse into an athlete who was easy to judge from a distance, but hard to know in full.
Whereas some athletes might reveal themselves to the world… Sharapova was a fundamentally guarded public figure during her years on the WTA Tour. Scripted, focused, determined, refusing to take any crap from anyone else, Sharapova stayed on message. (Keep her away from presidential politics — that would be a waste of her talents.)
Viewed from a great distance, this way of being came across as cold or unfeeling. Yet, if understood properly, it was just business.
Sharapova is a businesswoman, and this retirement will surely enable her to focus on more business ventures at a relatively young age. Yet, Sharapova was and is more than just a businesswoman. She has always been a businesslike person.
In short, she has always been professional in the strictest and most positive sense of the term.
This feeds into the happy contradiction, the pleasing puzzle, Sharapova represents as she rides into the sunset as a tennis player.
What, precisely, was this happy contradiction? It acquired many dimensions, but one stood above all others.
Very simply, Maria Sharapova lived a life of elegance, style, luxury, and global fame, yet played as though she had only a dime to her name.
Maria Sharapova owned immense wealth, yet she played as though she was completely broke and her survival depended on winning the match she was contesting.
We can never truly know how tennis fans have processed or reacted to the careers of the global superstars of the 21st century. Why can I say that? I say that because of the difficulty pollsters have of assessing American presidential votes due to the multi-lingual, multi-ethnic nature of local populations.
American pollsters have trouble polling non-English-speaking populations. Hence, getting a clear read on a local population’s views across different languages is very hard.
Therefore, polling the world — as though it could speak with one voice in its opinions on players — would be just about an impossible task. Good luck trying to get an accurate read on how tennis fans across the planet regard various superstars.
What I am about to mention is only a hunch. It is not fact. It is not an opinion masquerading as a LIKELY fact. No. It IS only a hunch, and should not be interpreted as anything more than that.
Nevertheless, I think it is worth sharing.
I joined Twitter — and hence, #TennisTwitter — in 2009, before I started writing professionally about tennis in 2014. In 10.5 years #OnHere, it was my observation that while there were certainly people who liked Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova, there were even more people who liked both Sharapova and Rafael Nadal.
Maybe that strikes you as surprising, maybe it does not. Regardless, most tennis fans should be able to see why Sharapova is more of a kindred spirit of Rafa than Roger as a tennis player. (Off the court, as an endorsement juggernaut and fashion ambassador? Different story.)
Sharapova — living an elegant life but playing matches with enormous competitive hunger — catapulted her career to a considerable height because of her willpower.
The woman who won Wimbledon at age 17 has retired as a two-time Roland Garros champion.
The woman who won the 2006 U.S. Open and made major hardcourt finals 8.5 years apart — 2006 U.S. Open, 2015 Australian Open — will nevertheless be remembered as a player whose best surface became clay, when all was said and done.
The woman who looked so conspicuously out of her element on different surfaces (plural) at various times in her career — clay in her early years, grass in her later years — will walk away from tennis as the holder of a career Grand Slam.
Yes, we can — and should — note that Sharapova’s desire to win led her to cheat, a stain on her overall legacy. To completely omit that from an appraisal of her career would be an exercise in hagiography, much as it would be for any baseball player who used steroids or for the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox, who cheated when winning a World Series in 2017 (Astros) or 2018 (Red Sox).
Yet, Maria Sharapova’s career was more than just her darkest moment. She did achieve quite a lot in this sport, and she did leave behind a lesson for young tennis players.
That lesson is easy to say, but very hard to apply: Focus on the next point with all your strength, and block everything else out.
“Focus on the next point completely.”
“Well, sure, of course! Why wouldn’t I?”, a young player might respond.
Again: It all sounds so simple in theory, but it is far more complicated when trying to actually put that advice into practice.
Can you fully focus when the chair umpire fails to call a double bounce and your opponent wins a 30-30 point at 6-5 in the final set?
Can you fully focus when a double net-cord point doesn’t go your way at deuce at 4-4 in the final set?
Can you fully focus after you botch an easy overhead at 5-5 in a third-set tiebreaker?
Focusing on the next point — and nothing else — after a traumatic occurrence on the court, or after falling behind 3-0 in a deciding set is NOT an easy thing to do.
Sharapova lived a tennis life of global elegance, but trained her mind to be relentlessly and ruthlessly focused on one thing: the next point.
We all saw Sharapova walk behind the baseline with her back to the court and her opponent. Many people found that habit annoying, but Sharapova didn’t care.
I would not advise young players to do what Sharapova specifically did (the walk behind the baseline with her back to the court and her opponent), but I WOULD tell young players to do what Sharapova did on a more general level:
Find a way to clear your mind after a frustrating or infuriating moment. You have to do this to thrive as a tennis player. You don’t have to do it the exact way Sharapova did it, but you DO have to find a way which works for YOU.
The happy contradiction of Sharapova’s career has already been mentioned: She, like Nadal, was world-famous yet played matches with the desperation of a beggar in search of a dollar. That larger contradiction enables us to appreciate the essential triumph of Sharapova’s career.
Quite a lot of professional athletes make millions of dollars. They travel from one place to the next. They receive lots of compliments and positive publicity. They enjoy the trappings of fame… but their material success and comfort erode the hunger they once had, the hunger which led them to climb out of rough-and-tumble backgrounds to make something of themselves.
From this larger group of athletes who enjoy their careers once the large paychecks start coming in, there is a smaller and more precise subgroup of athletes who work hard at their craft, but focus on (in team sports, not tennis) statistics. If they reach certain statistical milestones, they will earn more money the next time they renegotiate a contract with their team, or in free agency.
Maria Sharapova easily could have fallen into the mindset of an athlete who enjoyed a professional career but didn’t think it was necessary to maximize that career at all costs. She certainly had plenty of (pleasant) distractions along the path of her professional journey.
Yet, when it came time to play a tennis match, Maria Sharapova didn’t coast on her fame or her glamorous looks. She put in the work. She put in the time. She put in the sacrifice.
She lived a white-collar tennis life but displayed a blue-collar tennis work ethic.
That is a significant legacy to leave behind — for herself, yes, but also for generations of young players who admired her from afar.
Maria Sharapova put her mind fully to the task at hand, whether it was on or off the court. The Zen mantra, “Wherever you go, there you are,” is a call to mindfulness. Maria Sharapova lived that mantra throughout her happily contradictory tennis career.