Like most people, even most tennis junkies, I first became fully aware of Maria Sharapova when she stormed to the Wimbledon title in 2004 at the age of seventeen. I pegged her instantly as a double-digit major winner with the usual caveat: Barring injuries.
The injuries began at the Australian Open in 2007 and, absent a three-month false dawn at the beginning of 2008 (when she stormed back to form, winning the ’08 AO without dropping a set), they never really ended. By June she was slated for major shoulder surgery.The tennis world kept insisting the injuries shouldn’t really matter, I suppose because there was a perception that her star power was needed more than the obvious truth.
After several years of struggle she gutted herself to a couple of French Open titles on her least-favored surface (for those who don’t follow it, surface is a big deal in tennis) which proved to all those pretenders, who of course had been writing her off the meanwhile, that she must have fully recovered.
What it really proved was that eighty percent of Maria Sharapova was still a Hall of Fame player.
It’s those old sad words everyone will continue missing today after she announced her retirement at age thirty-two: What might have been.
I’ll leave that alone. There’s no point in arguing with idiots. The lies didn’t bother her for more than a minute so there’s no reason they should bother me.
She was a big favorite of mine, though, not least because the only words that ever suited her were “She fights.” That quality was so obvious even the tennis press couldn’t miss it and is much, much rarer in the age of big money in sports than we are led to believe.
More important to me, raised to cherish stoicism, she was the same in all weathers: Poker-faced, intense, unsmiling, not concerned with making friends. The image was all glam. The reality was a hard-nosed immigrant who used an insane work ethic to escape poverty, refused the soft out of American citizenship, took and gave no quarter, and became the only person, male or female, to claim a career Grand Slam (winning each of the four major tournaments at least once) in the world’s supremely athletic sport, without being a great natural athlete (if anyone tries to tell you Chris Evert or Andre Agassi weren’t great athletes, just laugh at them).
For all she did on the court, though, my favorite Maria moment was a quote from the period after she became a spokesperson for Land Rover in her early twenties. It was apparently the vehicle of choice among the hot young things in L.A. where she spent a good part of the year. She remarked that when the rich girls pulled up next to her at a stop light, she would look over, smile, and think:
“Daddy didn’t buy mine.”