The can­did, cap­ti­vat­ing story of a hun­gry ten­nis great

Manawatu Standard - - Comment & Opinion - PETER LAMPP SPORT COM­MENT peter.lampp@fair­fax­me­

The grunt­ing was, and still is, a turnoff, so read her book on mute.

Just imag­ine a Kiwi ten­nis prodigy leav­ing home at the age of 6 for a for­eign coun­try, hav­ing one ten­nis skirt, a cut-down over­sized rac­quet and not speak­ing a word of the lan­guage when you got there.

We think we have hunger, but these ten­nis tots need a spe­cial type of hunger.

One such was a Rus­sian kid who has hit balls since the age of 4. Her name, Masha Shara­pova, who we all know as Maria.

The Rus­sians seem­ingly have a con­veyor that churns out ten­nis star­lets in droves. If they do, Shara­pova wasn’t on it.

She and her ten­nis-ob­sessed fa­ther, Yuri Shara­pov, one day flew Aeroflot from Moscow to Mi­ami to chase his ten­nis dream for his daugh­ter. Her mother was left be­hind in Rus­sia.

No-one knew they were com­ing, they had nowhere to stay, spoke

only Rus­sian and were briefly helped by two pas­sen­gers off the Aeroflot flight to go knock­ing on ten­nis academy doors.

No, I didn’t get the ex­clu­sive in­ter­view. But I did get an early glimpse of Shara­pova’s chron­i­cled life thanks to the Palmer­ston North City Li­brary.

There is some­thing about the ex­cel­lence of so many ten­nis au­to­bi­ogra­phies.

Ask any­one who has leafed through Rod Laver: A Mem­oir, Jimmy Con­nor’sthe Out­sider and, prob­a­bly the best of the lot, An­dre Agassi’s Open.

You can add an­other doozy to that lot, Maria Shara­pova’s Un­stop­pable, My Life So Far – can­did, hu­mor­ous and cap­ti­vat­ing.

The grunt­ing was, and still is, a turn-off, so read her book on mute.

It started aged 4 in the Rus­sian city of Sochi, which hosted the 2014 Win­ter Olympics. Her par­ents had fled Belarus for Siberia when the nu­clear re­ac­tor at Ch­er­nobyl blew up 60 kilo­me­tres away, just over the Ukraine bor­der.

At 1.88me­tres (6 foot 2), Maria tow­ers over her par­ents and fleet­ingly won­ders if the ra­di­a­tion gave her a growth spurt.

One day in Moscow, Martina Navratilova no­ticed the tiny tot among hun­dreds at a ten­nis clinic. Navratilova told her fa­ther to get Masha out of the coun­try.

In Mi­ami, they talked their way into Nick Bol­let­tieri’s renowned academy, but she soon made the mis­take of beat­ing the daugh­ters of rich par­ents. That saw her booted out and she and her fa­ther were home­less again. But al­ways some­one came to their aid and there were al­ways rough pub­lic courts to prac­tise on.

Ev­ery day she over­came stress by hit­ting ten­nis balls and she still does, even when the world gov­ern­ing body came af­ter her for tak­ing the newly-banned mel­do­nium. While they stitched her up, giv­ing no ob­vi­ous warn­ing it was banned, she was naive about what she was pop­ping.

Shara­pova is no friendly Fed­erer. Ever since she was tiny, she only wanted to smash the other girls with her hard, flat hit­ting. Friend­ships were out.

As a 17-year-old, when she beat Serena Wil­liams in the Wim­ble­don fi­nal, she heard Wil­liams cry­ing in the ad­ja­cent locker. Wil­liams never for­gave her for it.

Shara­pova writes that at that age, skinny and ten­nis ob­sessed, she didn’t even re­alise she might be pretty and couldn’t un­der­stand why 25-year-old men were look­ing at her. It’s that sort of book. And there has to be an­other book in her.

The clos­est we have in New Zealand is Ma­rina Erakovic, born in Split, Croa­tia, but to­day ranked 162 in sin­gles. She too em­i­grated as a 6-year-old with not a word of English, but both her par­ents ac­com­pa­nied her.

An­other book just out, re­port­edly a dark read, is that by Aussie-cum-yu­goslav-cum Ser­bian player, Je­lena Do­kic, ti­tled Un­break­able.

Pil­lo­ried as a su­per­brat when on the cir­cuit, few knew of the abuse Do­kic was cop­ping from her crazy fa­ther, Damir. From child­hood un­til her early 20s, the emo­tional and phys­i­cal abuse, even to whip­ping her back with his belt, al­most drove her to sui­cide. Shara­pova, it seems, had it easy.

A silly old bat

It takes more than a bat out of hell for me to aban­don Sonny Bill Wil­liams. He is a re­mark­able tal­ent not dis­tracted by his celebrity nor by the haters so abun­dant in New Zealand.

For­mer Manawatu¯ Tur­bos coach Dave Ren­nie had noth­ing but praise for Wil­liams as a per­son and any NRL club or any other rugby coun­try would will­ingly snap him up.

His bat­ting the ball dead in Paris on Sun­day was an oops mo­ment in a game in which he was other­wise rock solid and set up a try. He could eas­ily have caught the ball and the Frog­gie be­hind him had no chance of scor­ing.

This makes the penalty, yel­low card and sin­bin­ning akin to a life sen­tence for nick­ing roses from the Es­planade.

In 2011, a Te Kawau player bat­ted the ball out and it cost the club fi­nal against Var­sity.

In 2008, Tur­bos wing Lote Raik­ab­ula did the same at Eden Park and I wrote: ‘‘South­land ref­eree Keith Brown lost his head and awarded a daft penalty try.’’

You can kick a ball dead, but not palm it. Rugby and its rules.

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