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