The candid, captivating story of a hungry tennis great
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.