It’s finally here – the day Maria Sharapova fans (and many other tennis fans) have been waiting for.
The tennis star’s memoir, “Unstoppable: My life so far” has finally been released.
What kind of a book is it?
Much of it is good. Very good.
By any standard, not just the rather pedestrian standard of sports biographies.
Her insight into the Tour, life, and her own strengths and weaknesses is impressive. For someone with little formal education, who was hermetically sealed in a protective tennis bubble most of her formative years, she really is a grownup.
If that sounds condescending, it doesn’t mean to be. Most will admit that the life of a young sports prodigy is anything but designed to produce mature, functional, well-rounded human beings.
Sharapova has never been a sharer despite living on a very public stage. She has kept her personal life – including her love life – intensely private. For someone who is as famous as she is, that is no small feat.
So the story of her life, and her career so far, is to a great extent brand-new territory even for her most ardent fans.
That quest for privacy speaks to the fact that never really sought to be famous. What she wanted – what she still wants, even now – is to win.
“I want to beat everyone. It’s not just the winning. It’s the not being beaten,” she writes.
The impossible journey to the unstoppable dream
Almost everything you read about Sharapova’s early life, and her journey to the U.S. with her father, says she was seven when she arrived. In fact, she was still just six years old.
That’s where the book begins, albeit a bit unsteadily. There are certain inconstencies with dates, certain things remembered that don’t quite match up. That’s probably an editing issue more than anything.
But there’s no doubt, even allowing for some artistic license, that the journey of Yuri Sharapov and his tiny little girl from Sochi, Russia to international stardom was a flat-out miracle.
And the book picks up steam quickly.
The early years were a study in determination. If you ever wondered where Sharapova got it, her father clearly had it in spades.
He took whatever job he could to pay the rent. He would feed her, clothe her, and cut her hair. They shared a foldout couch that sagged in the middle in the living room of a Russian women’s apartment near Bollettieri’s academy.
It was there that Sharapova quickly learned that the girls in the locker room were not her friends. As much as she is criticized for it, there’s a long history behind it that makes it completely understandable.
She arrived with the old racket of fellow Sochi resident Yevgeny Kafelnikov, cut down to size, “a single change of clothes, and shoes from a factory in Minsk”.
The other girls laughed at her. Later, when she lived in the dorm, they went through her things when she wasn’t there.
Everyone wants a piece
Being so good, so young, worked against her. Most of the students at Bollettieri’s were the children of rich parents paying exorbitant fees. Sharapova dusting off kids three, four, five years older just brought home to those parents that their little Ashley or darling Peyton wasn’t going to be nearly good enough to be a professional tennis player.
According to Sharapova, Alla Kournikova, the mother of Anna, spread rumours that the little tennis prodigy had been kidnapped by Yuri Sharapova and spirited away to the U.S. Not wanting to risk a whiff of scandal, Bollettieri asked Sharapova to leave. She was “trouble,” Sharapova writes.
Holding her hostage
The next top was a club called El Conquistador, where a former player named Sekou Bangoura ran an academy.
Bangoura, whose son Sekou currently plays on the Challenger Tour, had dollar signs in his eyes. Sharapova writes that he held onto Yuri Sharapov’s visa and passport – effectively holding them hostage. He hired her father in lieu of paying academy tuition. Then he fired him and began charging for all the court time.
When they were about to get evicted for not paying the rent, he came up with a contract for her to sign.
Luckily, they didn’t.
Sharapov had met another tennis father, an oncologist, who brought it to a lawyer. The lawyer declared the contract no less than “indentured servitude”. It would have forced Sharapova to hand over a large percentage of her earnings to Bangoura for her entire career, in exchange for the scholarship during those early years.
Bollettieri eventually came back into the picture. But as much as the perception is out there that he was a huge influence on Sharapova’s early career, the reality is probably that Robert Lansdorp had more influence than anyone except her father.
Sharapova rose quickly. And the rest is history.
Maria and Yuri
Eventually, in an email, she asked her father to step aside. And she writes that he graciously did. It’s interesting that at this point in the book – whether subconsciously or by design – she no longer calls him “Yuri”.
She calls him “her father” – just as she calls mother Yelena “her mother” and her various coaches, for the most part “her coach.”
For all those years, there was only “Maria and Yuri”. In the end, everyone else – even her mother – was the supporting cast.
Sharapova writes a little about the two major romances of her life – with Slovenian pro basketball player Sasha Vujacic and current top-10 tennis player Grigor Dimitrov.
And she writes about her brief coaching experience with Jimmy Connors. She doesn’t remember it fondly.
Dishing the dirt
Even if you’re Maria Sharapova, it’s probably a challenge to sell a book if you don’t deliver some of the good stuff.
And the good stuff, in this case, is Serena Williams.
Sharapova admits Williams’s talent is a big reason she has beaten her only twice in 21 attempts (both before the 2008 shoulder surgery that left her without her biggest weapon, the serve).
But mostly, she attributes it to her shocking Williams in that 2004 Wimbledon final, when Sharapova was only 17 and Williams, 22.
They had first faced each other a few months before, in Miami.
“Her physical presence is much stronger and bigger than you realize watching on TV. She has thick arms and thick legs and is so intimidating and strong. And tall, really tall,” Sharapova writes. “It still feels that way. Even now, she can make me feel like a little girl.”
It’s a funny thing, perception.
Sharapova is 6-foot-2. You wouldn’t think she’d consider too many other women “really tall”. Especially not Williams, who is listed at 5-9. And when people see Williams in person, they usually remark she looks significantly smaller in person than on TV.
But on the court, to Sharapova, she seemed – seems – a giant.
“Serena’s strengths are like puzzle pieces that snap into my weaknesses,” she writes, most eloquently.
A portrait of Serena
“There is the serve and the groundstrokes and the game, but it’s also her attitude that defeats you. She looks across the net with something like disdain, as if you are unimportant and small. … Then there is her temper, which can be hot and unpredictable. She is not afraid to scream, throw her racket, bitch at the refs about calls she doesn’t like.
“It’s interesting at first, then it gets irritating. Irritating in a way that might be intended. She behaves as if she is the only player out there, the only person who counts. And you? You are a speed bump. You are a zero. Many great players have this mentality. Serena Williams just has it more.”
Sharapova believes that Williams plays so well against her because of that Wimbledon final.
“I think Serena hated me for being the skinny kid who beat her, against all odds, at Wimbledon. And I think she hated me for taking something that she believed belonged to her. I think she hated me for seeing her at her lowest moment. But mostly I think she hated me for hearing her cry. She’s never forgiven me for it.”
A few missing details
There are few areas most readers might have hoped she dug more deeply into. But it’s her book; she gets to set the agenda.
The positive test for meldonium, with which she begins and ends the book, is of huge interest to a lot of people. But Sharapova doesn’t reveal much beyond what’s already out there.
“I figured all I had to do was explain myself and it would be fixed. … It should’ve been easy to clear up,” she writes.
Again, Sharapova is a little hazy on the dates. The email announcing the positive test for meldonium arrived “three weeks into the season”. Or it came “a few weeks after the Australian Open”. Or it came “less than a week” before her shocker of a press conference, which took place on March 7, 2016.
She doesn’t really clear up much about what remains, at best, a polarizing situation.
But Sharapova clearly has no intention of shedding any more light on it. She’s just moving forward. Otherwise, she would have expanded upon the period when the health issues she was having necessitated her doctor advising her to take a medicine cabinet-sized list of supplements she took at one time, including the meldonium.
The tricky thing about writing a memoir while your career is still very much a going concern is that there surely are more interesting chapters to come.
From all indications, this book is going to sell very well. In retirement – whenever that is – she may well have to get to work on a sequel.