Ex­clu­sive in­ter­view ‘I re­alised this was a busi­ness at 11’

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Women's Sport Monthly -

Maria Shara­pova shat­tered the glass ceil­ing for the earn­ing power of women ath­letes. Molly McEl­wee hears how she knew from a young age that she was in­volved in much more than just a game of ten­nis

Maria Shara­pova re­calls the mo­ment she knew she was worth in­vest­ing in. She was still a child, board­ing at the Nick Bol­let­tieri Ten­nis Acad­emy in Bradenton, Florida. Four years ear­lier she had left Rus­sia for the US with her fa­ther Yuri Shara­pov in a gam­ble to be­come ten­nis’s next su­per­star. Money was tight, and visa re­stric­tions pro­hib­i­tive, so it would be two years be­fore there was enough for an air ticket for her mother, Ye­lena, to join them at the acad­emy fa­mous for pro­duc­ing ten­nis icons An­dre Agassi and Mon­ica Se­les. One night, in her dorm room, Shara­pova heard a knock at the door. It was her coach, sum­mon­ing her to the prac­tice courts. Shara­pova was about to find out she had been hand-picked as the acad­emy’s next suc­cess story.

Speak­ing from her home in Los An­ge­les, her first in­ter­view with a Bri­tish news­pa­per since re­tir­ing in Fe­bru­ary, she de­scribes a mo­ment that would shape the next two decades of her ca­reer.

She tells the story an­i­mat­edly, the mem­ory still fresh in her mind. “A coach knocked on the door and said, ‘Would you be able to go to Cen­tre Court and play some ten­nis?’ ” re­calls the 33-year-old. “Play­ing ten­nis at 7pm at the acad­emy was off lim­its, like no one was al­lowed on the courts any more. But I walked over and there were all these men in suits lined up – I was 11 or 12, and [it was] the first time I felt that this was a busi­ness.”

Stood un­der the court flood­lights, ping­ing her now-sig­na­ture hard, flat, ground­strokes, the pre­co­cious Shara­pova had her first taste of how busi­ness pow­ers pro­fes­sional sport. And it felt good. “At that time, I had no idea what an in­vestor was but I re­mem­ber leav­ing think­ing, ‘Wow, I was called up,’”

Shara­pova says, the pride still ev­i­dent in her voice. “I mean, for me it was like a night match at the US Open – I left think­ing, ‘Oh, I like this feel­ing of be­ing called into Cen­tre Court, to be the one that po­ten­tially some­one wants to in­vest in’. I liked the pres­sure.”

Six years later and Shara­pova was on top of the world. Beat­ing Ser­ena Wil­liams to win Wim­ble­don aged just 17 in one of the most mem­o­rable fi­nals. She would go on to win four more ma­jors and 36 sin­gles ti­tles.

She also be­came the most mar­ketable woman in sport. Forbes es­ti­mate she spent a phe­nom­e­nal 11 con­sec­u­tive years as the high­est-earn­ing sportswoma­n on the planet, with ca­reer earn­ings of $325 mil­lion. While she graced the cov­ers of fash­ion mag­a­zines, be­hind the scenes she worked at grow­ing a busi­ness em­pire. Fa­mously, Har­vard Busi­ness School used her ca­reer as a case study on how to “mar­ket a cham­pion”.

Achieve­ments aside, most me­dia nar­ra­tives tended to fo­cus on whether she was like­able. Her for­mer coach, Bol­let­tieri said: “She’s very self­ish, she wants to help her­self. And that’s what it takes to be a great war­rior or busi­ness per­son. She’s not mean to other peo­ple … but it is Maria Shara­pova.” She was just 14. Her for­mi­da­ble on-court de­meanour fed that char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion and she made no se­cret of the fact she had no in­ter­est in mak­ing friends. She was fre­quently de­scribed as “steely” or “un­ap­proach­able”.

Speak­ing to Tele­graph Women’s Sport she does not come across that way. She is warm, per­son­able even. Did she think the scru­tiny was un­fair?

“Well, I never thought of it as cre­at­ing a ‘Maria Shara­pova brand’ – I was al­ways do­ing things that I re­ally loved,” she says of her busi­ness in­ter­ests. “The bot­tom line is peo­ple de­ter­mine who you are and what you are by the things that they read and see. When I woke up ev­ery morn­ing, my pri­or­ity was to be­come a cham­pion at my sport.”

Does she think she dealt with more scru­tiny than male ath­letes who built sim­i­larly suc­cess­ful brands off the court? She shrugs off the ques­tion, but Nike’s re­tire­ment ad­vert for her spoke vol­umes about the stereo­types she con­tended with: “They wanted you to smile more … But in­stead of be­com­ing the player the game wanted you be­came the player the game needed.”

The great­est recog­ni­tion of that last point could only come from equal rights pi­o­neer and ten­nis icon, Bil­lie Jean King, who said of her: “She re­ally helped the sport a lot be­cause she brought a lot of at­ten­tion to it – not only was she a great player, she did very well off the court.”

Shara­pova was never the out­spo­ken ac­tivist fight­ing for equal pay. But the fact that nine of the top 10 high­est-paid fe­male ath­letes this year were ten­nis play­ers, that Naomi Osaka made a record-break­ing $34 mil­lion in en­dorse­ments in 12 months, is without doubt a key part of her legacy, as well as that of long-time ri­val Wil­liams.

Shara­pova’s busi­ness tra­jec­tory was con­sciously driven by her, us­ing down­time dur­ing her ca­reer to cap­i­talise on her time at the top. “I sensed that ten­nis wasn’t go­ing to be for­ever,” she says now. Her candy busi­ness, Su­gar­pova, was founded while she was in­jured. She also learnt French, did her high-school diploma and ex­plored her in­ter­ests in ar­chi­tec­ture – most re­cently tak­ing a hands-on ap­proach in de­sign­ing her own home.

Dur­ing the now in­fa­mous 15-month ban she served for what the World Anti-Dop­ing

Agency ruled as “un­in­ten­tional” dop­ing, she kept work­ing, at­tend­ing Har­vard Busi­ness School and in­tern­ing at an ad agency, Nike and the NBA. The scan­dal that cre­ated global head­lines did not prove to be cat­a­strophic in busi­ness terms, cost­ing just one of her en­dorse­ment deals in the af­ter­math. But the re­sponse from her fel­low pro­fes­sion­als was less for­giv­ing; for­mer top seed Eu­ge­nie Bouchard said she should not be al­lowed to re­turn at all.

Did she ever con­sider quit­ting then? “When you win a Grand Slam, when you be­come No1 in the world, it’s a phe­nom­e­nal feel­ing – and you don’t have any­thing to prove,” she says, firmly bat­ting away the ques­tion. “Giv­ing up is not part of my char­ac­ter, I’ve over­come so many challenges through­out my ca­reer – the road from Siberia to Cen­tre Court is a long one. I wanted to per­form for my­self.”

Her come­back brought her lit­tle joy on the court though, and her shoul­der pain was un­bear­able. In a show of her abil­ity to tran­scend sport, she made her re­tire­ment an­nounce­ment a month later by pen­ning an

‘I never thought of it as cre­at­ing a brand. I was al­ways do­ing things that I re­ally loved’

open let­ter in the pages of fash­ion mag­a­zines

Vogue and Van­ity Fair, af­ter con­fid­ing in Amer­i­can Vogue edi­tor Anna Win­tour about her plans to draw a line un­der her ca­reer.

“Dosvi­danya,” she wrote, a nod to her Rus­sian roots.

What fol­lowed was a rel­a­tively seam­less tran­si­tion to post-ten­nis life that not many in sport en­joy. She laughs re­call­ing the day af­ter she went pub­lic with the news, as she forewent down­time and in­stead was straight into busi­ness meet­ings. The slower pace of lock­down life in the en­su­ing months has been a bless­ing af­ter 28 years of ten­nis, spend­ing time with her par­ents and part­ner, Bri­tish busi­ness­man Alexan­der Gilkes.

Her busi­ness in­stinct, though, has not slowed. Most re­cently, she in­vested in Ther­abody, a health and well­ness brand with a range of sports re­cov­ery mas­sage ma­chines, and plans to have a hands-on role in the com­pany. It is a match that makes sense, con­sid­er­ing her last years on the Tour were spent try­ing to co­erce her shoul­der, an in­jury that dogged her for more than a decade, to let her play through chronic pain.

Now, as the first ma­jor since her re­tire­ment kicks off at the US Open next week, she will be look­ing on at her first grand slam as a fan. Shara­pova names 16-year-old Coco Gauff as the ath­lete to em­u­late her own suc­cess and be­come a teen cham­pion. Gauff ’s ac­tivism for the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment also im­presses her.

“I re­mem­ber when I was 13 years old, Bil­lie Jean King came up to me for the very first time,” she re­calls. “She said, ‘What­ever you do does not just shape your path, but it shapes the path of the gen­er­a­tion to come’. At the time, [it] didn’t res­onate. But I think Coco’s do­ing an in­cred­i­ble job of that – she’s us­ing her plat­form to make a dif­fer­ence. I ad­mire her a lot.”

It is an ob­ser­va­tion that feels sur­pris­ing, con­sid­er­ing so­cial con­scious­ness never seemed like a pri­or­ity in her own ca­reer. And yet, when we look back we see how Shara­pova helped shape the script on the po­ten­tial of a sportswoma­n to ex­cel both on and off the court.

In do­ing so, she em­pow­ered a whole gen­er­a­tion of fe­male sportswome­n to know their worth too. Her new life, eas­ing into a re­tire­ment cen­tred around her en­trepreneur­ship, is tes­ta­ment to that, and to the girl that clob­bered back­hands down the line un­der the Cen­tre Court flood­lights in Bradenton all those years ago.

Just cham­pion: Maria Shara­pova af­ter her Wim­ble­don tri­umph as a 17-year-old in 2004

With Anna Win­tour, the edi­tor of Amer­i­can Vogue mag­a­zine

Maria Shara­pova at the Har­vard Busi­ness School

She has re­cently backed Ther­abody health and well­ness

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