In the midst of a ten­nis come­back, five-time Grand Slam sin­gles win­ner and busi­ness en­tre­pre­neur Maria Sharapova took time out for a chat.

Hamptons Magazine - - Contents - by ANN LIGUORI

In the midst of a ten­nis come­back, five-time Grand Slam sin­gles win­ner and busi­ness en­tre­pre­neur Maria Sharapova took time out for a chat.

WHEN I TALKED WITH MARIA SHARAPOVA early this sum­mer, she had just come off a 15-month ban for use of mel­do­nium, a pre­scribed heart med­i­ca­tion she had been tak­ing for 10 years that had been added to the banned drug list, un­be­known to her, just be­fore she tested pos­i­tive for it at the 2016 Aus­tralian Open. She af­firms that she was never ad­vised of the change and fought rig­or­ously to over­turn her sus­pen­sion (which was re­duced from two years to 15 months) and clear her name.

Sharapova was in France at the time of our con­ver­sa­tion, hop­ing to get a wild­card en­try into the French Open—a cham­pi­onship she had won twice. The wild-card didn’t hap­pen. Wim­ble­don, the first Ma­jor ti­tle she won in 2004 as a 17-year-old, shunned her wild-card hopes as well; and now Sharapova awaits the de­ci­sion of the USTA re­gard­ing a wild-card en­try for the up­com­ing US Open, which starts Au­gust 28. Sharapova, the 2006 US Open champ, will try to work her way through the US Open qual­i­fy­ing tour­na­ment, if need be, a week ear­lier.

Dur­ing the dif­fi­cult time away from pro­fes­sional com­pe­ti­tion, the over­achiever did plenty to keep busy. She trav­eled, dec­o­rated a new home in Cal­i­for­nia, took a global strate­gic man­age­ment class at Har­vard Busi­ness School, in­terned at an ad­ver­tis­ing agency, spent a week shad­ow­ing NBA Com­mis­sioner Adam Sil­ver (whom she calls “one of the best lead­ers in sports”), over­saw her ex­pand­ing Su­gar­pova con­fec­tionary brand, and com­pleted her fiercely hon­est au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Un­stop­pable: My Life So Far. Cowrit­ten by Rich Co­hen, the com­pelling read, out in mid-septem­ber, is a re­fresh­ing look at the ten­nis su­per­star’s rags-to-riches story. As a young girl, Sharapova moved to the US from Siberia with her fa­ther, tak­ing a bus to Florida with lit­tle money in her pocket and not a word of English, to at­tend the Nick Bol­let­tieri Ten­nis Academy (now IMG Academy). The rest, as they say, is his­tory. How re­lieved are you to get your side of the story out there? As a pro­fes­sional ath­lete, there’s only so much that you’re al­lowed to keep to your­self, just be­cause of the open­ness in which you have to carry your life, from press con­fer­ences to meet-and-greets to play­ing in front of thou­sands of peo­ple. But I think the vul­ner­a­bil­ity with which I was able to fin­ish the book makes it that much bet­ter, be­cause dur­ing that pe­riod I re­ally learned that, as a woman es­pe­cially, vul­ner­a­bil­ity is not some­thing that is easy to share. There are so many in­stances when I was vul­ner­a­ble or I didn’t feel like I had a lot of power or strength, and I look back at those times, and they made me so strong. Be­cause of that, I share a lot more in the book than I would have if I didn’t go through [that ex­pe­ri­ence]. That’s a part of what I find so com­pelling about your book, that you’re not hes­i­tant to open up about the sus­pen­sion. I didn’t write about what hap­pened un­til maybe six months or so had passed. I think it was just too tough. But I still had the time to fin­ish those chap­ters, and to be­come com­fort­able with ac­tu­ally writ­ing [down] my feel­ings and what I was go­ing through. Dur­ing the mo­ment, and dur­ing all the le­gal pro­ce­dures, it was re­ally hard to write; it was al­most like I wanted it over with, and I just didn’t want my mem­ory and my words to be on pa­per. Then when I felt like it was the right time, I sat down and just started writ­ing. You were very de­scrip­tive about be­ing sus­pended. In the book, you wrote that you “had a bot­tom­less hole be­neath my life and in I went. Every­thing I worked for since I was 4 years old, that whole crazy strug­gle, was sud­denly cast in a new, ter­ri­ble, un­fair light. What fol­lowed were days of de­spair.” Then you said you were de­ter­mined that what hap­pened to you last year would not be the last word. That’s pow­er­ful ma­te­rial. Thank you. It’s the frame of mind that I had from early last year, from the first few

days of when I found out that I’d be out of the game for a while. It’s the at­ti­tude that I car­ried with me through­out this whole pe­riod, and that also comes from my life ex­pe­ri­ence. As I look back at who I am as a per­son and what I’ve achieved, it was def­i­nitely sad to think that any­one would say I ever took the easy way out. As you read the story, it shares a lot of that tough jour­ney, and the easy way out was never even in the cards! My feel­ings [were] like, You’re go­ing into this deep hole and yet you still have so many years ahead of you… how are you go­ing to turn this around? How are you go­ing to step up? Those are all things that I think parts of my child­hood re­ally pre­pared me for, and with the way that I’ve been able to han­dle it. I can say that I’m proud of where I’ve come to be. Do you feel that you’re even more de­ter­mined than ever now to get back to the top of the game? It’s funny, what I play for is so dif­fer­ent now than what I played for when I was younger. When you’re away from some­thing for a long time, you re­al­ize what you re­ally miss and why. There are so many things in ten­nis that I don’t re­ally get in other parts in my life: I play for the com­pe­ti­tion; I play for the vic­to­ries that I can earn with my team, who also help me be the player that I am, who work with me on a daily ba­sis. There’s a lot that I play for, and what hap­pened was a road­block. [But] I don’t have that mind-set to use some­thing like that as am­mu­ni­tion. It’s never re­ally been the way that I think. You said that af­ter Ser­ena Wil­liams beat you in the 2015 Aus­tralian Open fi­nals, you looked for­ward to the com­ing sea­son, which would be one of your last. I didn’t re­al­ize that you were think­ing of re­tire­ment at that point. I’d been play­ing pro­fes­sion­ally since I was very young, and there were cer­tainly mo­ments in life where you want to feel like a nor­mal per­son. You want to be there for your friends and for your fam­ily, when they need you and not just when you can. Go­ing into another press con­fer­ence af­ter a loss, and every­thing that you built on the court, in 15 min­utes get­ting pun­ished for los­ing a match… it makes you think. And in that pe­riod of my ca­reer, re­tire­ment was very much [on my mind]. I have so many other pas­sions in my life as well, and although ten­nis has [been] the core of my life in the past 30 years, as a woman, there’s so much to look for­ward to. I was 28; at that stage, I never re­ally thought that I’d play past Rio [the 2016 Sum­mer Olympics]. What are your thoughts now about re­tir­ing? Some­times I look back at that mo­ment, and the con­ver­sa­tion I had with my man­ager that I de­scribe in the book, and I re­mem­ber it so vividly—i’m sit­ting there and los­ing a quar­ter-fi­nal match and just be­ing so down... you have to go to the next tour­na­ment; you’ve got to pack your bags. And we were talk­ing about a con­tract rene­go­ti­a­tion I just had. It was around the time of my next birth­day—i was turn­ing 30—and I told him, “I re­ally want to cel­e­brate my 30th birth­day. I don’t want to have any tour­na­ment com­mit­ments. I just want to cel­e­brate my birth­day as a nor­mal hu­man be­ing.” And it was like “bam!” It’s like some­one just lis­tens to this and goes, “Oh, you want to ex­pe­ri­ence what nor­mal is like?” So this year I had a com­pletely nor­mal 30th birth­day where my friends from all around the world came, and we got to cel­e­brate it, and it was great. But I still felt like I’m miss­ing some­thing in my life. So that was a real eye-opener for me. So you de­cided “nor­mal” wasn’t that great? No, nor­mal is great. Nor­mal is fan­tas­tic—hav­ing week­ends and mak­ing plans, and hav­ing a sched­ule that’s just a lit­tle bit more pre­dictable than hav­ing a ten­nis sched­ule. All those things, they were com­fort­able. When you’re on the tour, and you’re trav­el­ing 10 months out of the year, there’s so much un­known. Of course, you know that you have a tour­na­ment this week and that week, but you don’t know how you’re go­ing to do. You don’t know in what city you’re go­ing to play next. You don’t know if you’re go­ing to add a tour­na­ment. You don’t know what event you’re go­ing to be at, what projects you’re go­ing to be a part of.

It was nice to set­tle down, to have a bit of a home life. I know it sounds so sim­ple, but just [to have] week­ends, and Satur­day nights… Satur­day nights weren’t any dif­fer­ent to me than a Wed­nes­day night as a pro­fes­sional ath­lete. It was nice to have ex­pe­ri­ences in school and study for three weeks, and then go do in­tern­ships. I would have never done those things if I had a full-time pro­fes­sional ath­lete’s ca­reer. With Ser­ena on a preg­nancy break, do you feel like there’s even a bet­ter shot for you now to get back to where you were? I can’t look past the fact that I haven’t played for a long pe­riod of time, and you can never repli­cate what you do in train­ing to play­ing matches. So I have to look at what’s ahead of me, and that’s the next match and the next tour­na­ment. It takes a lot to get that feel­ing back of the repet­i­tive­ness, the match play, of play­ing five matches in seven days. The phys­i­cal­ity of it is very in­tense, and that’s one of the things a lot of peo­ple over­look, the amount of phys­i­cal strain the body goes through in a week. To be able to do it week in, week out is an ad­just­ment for some­one who hasn’t played for a while. So that’s where my mind and my fo­cus is, rather than who I’m go­ing to be play­ing against. Sounds like you’re in a re­ally good place right now. Thanks. I feel like get­ting back to what I’ve done since I was a young girl just makes me that much hap­pier, be­ing able to be where I feel that I be­long, and where I am best at. When you have some­thing taken away from you, you don’t know if you can ever get it back. So I have a lot to [feel] for­tu­nate for!


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