Sharapova – the blonde fury
Every tennis generation had a golden haired prodigy. No previous generation, however, had someone who scored so many points in their favour like Maria Sharapova: sporting prowess, beauty, wealth and personality.
The ball leaves the racket with a sharp whack, like the popping of a champagne cork released in a fraction of a second. It arrives in the opponent’s court leaving what seems to be a burnt spot where it scorches the surface. The grunt barely fades away as it melts with the sound of the yellow sphere forming a distinctive, yet familiar sound. unmistakable, it is Maria Sharapova. Once the point is over, she turns her back to the net, tilts her head slightly and examines the strings of her racket with such care as if she saw them for the first time. With a slight hop, she gathers momentum and returns to the game. Mighty and determined, with an alert gaze, the same sequence is repeated time and again. Advantage point or not, there is defiance with a ritualistic precision. It is as if, for her, a game contains hundreds of beginnings and she is always ready to start anew, over and over again. This probably explains why she was able to accomplish so much in such little time, not knowing what it’s like to give in, to retreat, to falter. She didn’t know it when she was a 6 year old little girl who used to hit the tennis ball against a small brick wall in Sochi, she certainly doesn’t know it now, when she has completed a career Grand Slam. At 25 she has eyes only for what lies ahead of her and yet at only 25 she leaves behind her a lifetime of tennis.
Like with many modern stories, we will start with the end, a happy ending that Maria lived until June when Roland Garros, the French Open, ended. One major tournament title that was missing from her track record was won in thrilling fashion on the red clay Parisian court. All the other tournaments were crossed off her wish list a pretty long time ago. In 2004 when she was just 17 she won Wimbledon after a final beating Serena Williams, who was at the time almost invincible on grass. Two years later, in 2006, she won the US Open with her black rhinestone dress memorably shinning mysteriously in all the static and motion pictures. In 2008, after another 2 years, at what seemed the peak of her physical condition, she won the Australian Open. Paris should have followed in 2010, but sometimes symmetries and coincidences suffer memory lapses, or perhaps only delays. In this case it was a 2 year delay before she got her final important victory.
Did anyone take notice of this, I wonder, because the Russian girl certainly didn’t. She did what, in strictly sport terms, is called the Grand Slam of her career. She reached a zenith that not many other female players have reached over time, and in doing so, she added another jewel to her crown. Along with this Parisian triumph, came her return to number one in the world rankings, where she hadn’t been since the summer of 2008, the year over which a big question mark hovered. Everything in its own time though. Maria Sharapova of 2012 is a live portrait of success, a nonlinear yet still round success, if something as such is even possible. Yet, it hasn’t always been this way.
Like with many classic stories, we will start with the beginning, or even before it, like Laurence Sterne in ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy’. It is April 1986 and Maria’s father, Yuri, had just met her mother, Elena. They were married very soon after in Gomel, Belarus, Yuri’s native town. Neither knew what their lives would turn out. His family included his mother, Galina who ran a small corner store; and his brother Sasha (the father had passed away when the boys were still young). Yuri had satisfied his military service and was working in constructions.
Then came the event that would change their lives forever. On the 26th of April there was an explosion in one of the reactors at Chernobyl, only 100 miles away. Elena found out she was pregnant 3 months later and Yuri Sharapov’s young family were forced to move, initially to the city of Nyagan in Western Siberia where they settled into a small studio flat sharing with Elena’s parents while Yuri found work in the oil extraction industry. Maria, their precious child, their prodigious little girl, their unique baby, was born here. Two years later they moved from Nyagan to the friendlier Black Sea coast resort town of Sochi. It is here, in the city of Evgheni Kafelnikov the first Russian to become world number one in 1999, that Maria was introduced to tennis. But there’s still more of this story to tell until we get crucial point when somewhere in the stars above everything was decided: it shall be tennis for the little Sharapova, tennis all the way.
The workout routine was simple, repetitive and tiring. The kid hit the ball against a brick wall in the local park. There was no money to rent an indoor or outdoor tennis court and the 30 minutes walk to the tennis centre made the park the only real option. When the harsh and barely humane winter comes, Yuri wrapped Masha up in a synthetic fur coat and took her to the brick wall. There was no one else in the park but them and the wall. Something happened soon after that both father and daughter will remember for the rest of their lives.
Maria was 6 and while running to catch the bus to the tennis centre, she slipped, the slip cutting her hand open. Her fingers bled and her nails were broken. The pain, greater than anything she could have ever imagined, made her burst into tears. Her father was unshaken and tells her “Don’t cry Masha!”. She pleads with him to return home. “Don’t cry Masha!”, his voice sounded louder and harsher. “Stop crying! We’re going to the practice!” This was how Sharapova was taught to live, defeating everything that stood in her way be it a cut finger, a net or an opponent.
The story flows towards its target and its heroes don’t even know it. Yuri took Maria to Moscow to an open tennis lesson held by the great Czecho-American champion Martina Navratilova. There was something in this little ambitious blonde girl’s still rudimentary and childish way of playing that attracted Navratilova and even shocked her. She noticed her one way system of always pushing forward, never stepping back. But, added Navratilova, she needed a skilled trainer to work with the unpolished precious stone. This meant Yuri Yudkin, her Sochi trainer until then, was of no good use anymore. He remembered his admiration: “It amazed me from the beginning how intelligent she was, even at her 4 and a half.