Shara­pova, champ of tough love

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - RE­VIEW BY MICHAEL MEWSHAW Michael Mewshaw is the au­thor of 21 books, most re­cently “Ad In Ad Out,” a col­lec­tion of es­says on ten­nis.

Maria Shara­pova ad­mits that her mem­oir, “Un­stop­pable: My Life So Far,” was sched­uled as part of her 2016 re­tire­ment tour, ending “at the US Open . . . just as this book hit the stores.” But then she tested pos­i­tive for a banned sub­stance and re­ceived a two-year sus­pen­sion, re­duced on ap­peal to 15 months. So she turned to Plan B— a come­back in the spring of 2017, lead­ing up to the year’s last Grand Slam at Flush­ing Mead­ows, capped by pub­li­ca­tion of the book and her tri­umphant re­turn to the top of the game.

In­stead, she en­coun­tered bit­ter re­sent­ment from other play­ers and har­rumph­ing from the press. She lost at her first tour­na­ment in Ger­many, with­drew in­jured from the Ital­ian Open, was re­fused en­try at the French Open and Wim­ble­don, and re­tired from a tour­na­ment in Cal­i­for­nia with yet an­other in­jury. This prompted snarky online com­ments that she couldn’t win with­out chem­i­cal help. But the U.S. Open wel­comed her with a wild card, and she reached the fourth round be­fore los­ing and com­ing in for more crit­i­cism for re­ceiv­ing pref­er­en­tial court as­sign­ments.

One can only marvel at the fall of the five-time Grand Slam champion, the glam­orous spokes­woman for lux­ury prod­ucts and the rich­est fe­male ath­lete in the world. To con­vey this kind of calamity would re­quire a Greek tragedy, not an as-told-to au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. But “Un­stop­pable” does of­fer clues to why Shara­pova finds her­self with few friends on the pro tour.

Shara­pova was born to a mono­ma­ni­a­cal fa­ther who taught him­self ten­nis, then im­posed it on his child. These events tran­spired in Rus­sia af­ter the nu­clear melt­down at Ch­er­nobyl and the breakup of the Soviet Union, adding to the im­plau­si­bil­ity of the tale, which reads like a Ho­ra­tio Al­ger story on steroids (Shara­pova’s drug ban, by the way, was for mel­do­nium, a heart medicine sus­pected of be­ing a per­for­mance en­hancer, not for steroids). Leav­ing his wife in Rus­sia, Yuri Shara­pov bun­dled his daugh­ter, age 7, off to Florida with $700 in his pocket and a con­vic­tion that they could crash an elite ten­nis academy and cat­a­pult the fam­ily into the misty Amer­i­can Dream. For years they sur­vived on the kind­ness of strangers, Yuri’s na­tive cun­ning, Maria’s tal­ent and no small amount of luck. If Yuri was con­structed of steel, Maria was forged out of ti­ta­nium. She jokes that she willed her­self to grow to be 6 foot 2, and al­though of lim­ited speed and mo­bil­ity, she never lacked “de­ter­mi­na­tion, tenacity. I do not quit. Knock me down ten times, I get up af­ter the eleventh and shove the ball right back at you.” And ev­ery stroke she hit was punc­tu­ated by a ban­shee shriek.

At the start, she com­peted with an adult racket cut down to child size and wore Anna Kournikova’s castoff cloth­ing. She and Yuri slept in the same bed at the home of a Rus­sian emi­gre who some­times served as a sur­ro­gate mother and some­times threat­ened to evict them. Maria learned English from watch­ing TV and re­ceived al­most no for­mal ed­u­ca­tion. She didn’t see her mother for years but pro­fesses to have no re­grets about her child­hood. As she says, how could she miss some­thing she never had? If wel­fare au­thor­i­ties in Florida had known how she was liv­ing, they would prob­a­bly have taken her into foster care. The same might be said of many kids at ten­nis acad­e­mies — places An­dre Agassi char­ac­ter­ized as “Lord of the Flies with fore­hands.”

An out­lier from the start, Shara­pova viewed her es­trange­ment as an ad­van­tage. She showed “no emo­tion. No fear. Like ice. I was not friends with the other girls, be­cause that would make me softer, eas­ier to beat.”

She worked with a rogue’s gallery of coaches, some pos­i­tive in­flu­ences, some ex­ploita­tive, all ul­ti­mately dis­carded like sweaty socks on the locker room floor. When she dropped her fa­ther as coach, she sent him “an email be­cause I felt that was the best way I could ex­press my feel­ings.” The coach she liked best was Robert Lans­dorp who called her, age 11, a “broad” and told her, “Get your ass out on the court.”

Tough love was all she un­der­stood and, later on, all she had to of­fer. Her first se­ri­ous ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship with an NBA player foundered be­cause “my suc­cess, my fame, and my wealth were ev­i­dently be­com­ing a strug­gle for him.” From this she con­cluded, “If you are on the tour, then you have to be the man, no mat­ter your gen­der.”

Later she fell in love with a Bul­gar­ian ten­nis player, Grigor Dim­itrov, but it hit her that they had no fu­ture when she sat watch­ing him play a tour­na­ment where she had lost. “I was sup­posed to be fo­cused, get­ting pre­pared for my own matches, my own tri­umphs and de­feats, on the largest stage of my ca­reer.” She had no in­ter­est in cheer­ing him on. She was the show.

When she lost, as she of­ten did, to Ser­ena Wil­liams — their “le­gendary ri­valry” stands at 19-2 in Wil­liams’s fa­vor — she sought “re­tail ther­apy. When you feel you need to see a psy­chol­o­gist, go out and buy a pair of shoes in­stead. If they’re re­ally great shoes, all your wor­ries will evap­o­rate.”

The mem­oir ends where it be­gan, with Shara­pova’s bravado about never quit­ting “un­til they take down the nets. Un­til they burn my rack­ets.” I’d rec­om­mend that the au­thor of “Un­stop­pable” pause, re­flect a bit deeper, and cut her­self and ev­ery­one else more slack.

By Maria Shara­pova with Rich Co­hen Sarah Crich­ton/ FSG. 292 pp. $28


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