To understand why Maria Sharapova is retiring from professional tennis at age 32, it helps to know what she can no longer endure. “I look at photos of myself and of the motion where I’m just about to hit the ball, and I’m in the air or just as I’m making contact,” she said, “and I can’t even look at it because it makes me cringe. I have so much pain.”
The pain has been a near-constant companion over the last two years for Sharapova, a former No 1 player who became one of the richest and most globally recognisable athletes of the 21st century but who found herself unable to return to the top of the game after a suspension. Since then, she has dealt with recurring tendon damage in her right shoulder and inflammation in her forearms.
She was suspended in 2016 for using meldonium, a drug that Sharapova said she had been taking for years because of a magnesium deficiency, dizziness and a family history of diabetes. She claimed to be unaware that meldonium had recently been added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances.
There will be no farewell tour. “I don’t feel I need to go on the court for the entire world and every fan to know that this is my last time on the court,” Sharapova said.
Sharapova said she knew it was time to retire as she flew home to Los Angeles from Australia. Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash on January 26 made it even clearer. “We were supposed to see each other like three days after the crash,” said Sharapova, who explained that Bryant had been an “incredible sounding board” throughout her career.
A 6-foot-2 Russian who punctuated her flat groundstrokes with piercing shrieks, Sharapova made one of the most extraordinary journeys in sports. If not for the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, she would surely not be a tennis star. Her parents, Yuri and Yelena, were living in Gomel in present-day Belarus in April 1986 when the reactor exploded in nearby Chernobyl. They eventually fled to Nyagan in distant Siberia to live near family. Sharapova was born there in April 1987, but Yuri soon moved the family to sunnier Sochi on the Black Sea.
In 1993, when Maria was six and post-Soviet Russia was in turmoil, she and her father moved to Florida with less than $1,000 in Yuri’s pocket. It was a wild gamble. Sharapova, who was separated from her mother for more than two years because of American visa restrictions, showed remarkable steel, drive and talent as she worked her way to the top at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
Sharapova became a global star in 2004 by winning Wimbledon at age 17, upsetting top-seeded Serena Williams in a hard-hitting final. She won five Grand Slam singles titles in all, including the United States Open in 2006, the Australian Open in 2008 and the French Open in 2012 and 2014, despite clay being her least-favoured surface.
“I feel like a cow on ice,” she said, demonstrating a wit that was often impossible to detect on tour as she slammed no-nonsense winners and avoided forming bonds with her peers to maintain a competitive edge.
She won 36 tour singles titles in total, an Olympic silver medal in singles in 2012 and the Fed Cup title with Russia in 2008. She was ranked No. 1 for the first time in August 2005 and spent 21 weeks in the top spot. She was the world’s highest-earning female athlete for 11 consecutive years. She earned the majority of her income in endorsements from companies like Nike and Evian, started her own candy company and reportedly earned close to $30 million in 2015.
It is time now for new challenges and pleasures — for more time with her boyfriend, the British businessman Alexander Gilkes, and for her plans to study architecture later this year as well as focusing on growing her candy businesses.
© The New York Times 2020