Maria Sharapova On Her Comeback and "Rival" Serena Williams
Men’s Health talked to the tennis great to discuss her return to tennis, a newfound love of SoulCycle, and her controversial comments about Williams
Maria Sharapova, 30, is unstoppable. This is the message she would like to convey with her memoir, the appropriately titled Unstoppable (released Sept. 12), which tracks her trajectory from Russia to her enrollment at a prestigious tennis academy in Florida to her spectacular career as an Olympic athlete and five-time Grand Slam winner.
To a large degree, Sharapova deserves the title of unstoppable: she is one of the highest-earning tennis players in the world, she has 35 WTA singles’ titles, and she is generally considered, if not the best contemporary female tennis player, one of the greats. She is also a savvy businesswoman, creating the candy line Sugarpova in 2013 and doing a brief stint at Harvard Business School last year.
Her reputation as an astute self-marketer is such that in a recent profile in Racquet Magazine, writer Sarah Nicole Pritchett compared Sharapova to fellow self-branding guru Taylor Swift, a comparison that Sharapova herself balks at: “I think you just go about your life and your business with the best influence you can,” she responded cryptically.
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Until recently, Sharapova’s reputation as a steely-eyed entrepreneur and world-class athlete were relatively unassailable. Yet in 2016, her image took a hit when she was suspended for testing positive for meldonium, a banned substance that very recently was added to the World Doping Agency’s list of performance-enhancing drugs. A 15-month suspension was levied and the world awaited Sharapova’s return.
That recent return was marked by controversy, as well as a number of injuries; although she made it relatively far in this year’s U.S. Open tournament, she was felled by Anastasija Sevastova in the fourth round. On the morning of the U.S. Open women’s finals, Men’s Health caught up with Sharapova to discuss her return to tennis, her workout routine during her hiatus, and her relationship with Serena Williams. (Sharapova describes Williams’ physicality in explicit detail and recounts Williams’ “bawling” response after Sharapova beat her at the 2004 Wimbledon final, have also garnered intense criticism.)
MH: You had a few injuries earlier this year. How have you bounced back from those physically? What has the recovery been like?
MS: It’s interesting: when you’re younger, you don’t think of injuries as being part of a career, just because you’re so focused on training and training and playing. But as you get older you realize the body can do amazing things, if you give it the breaks that it needs and the nutrition and the hydration that it needs. Even though I’m a big foodie and I love a lot of big meals and I come from a culture in Russia where you just eat all the time, I believe in nutrition very much and it’s really valuable to develop an understanding of how your body feels after you eat certain foods. I think it allows for maintaining a good baseline around the day.
How has your diet and your fitness routine changed throughout your career as you’ve gotten older?
I’m definitely more aware of how I feel after I eat certain foods. I definitely eat a lot more greens and a lot more grains. I think we eat a lot more protein than we actually need, because we sometimes crave it or we’re influenced by restaurants and menus and it sounds so good and we want to order it. So I try to keep a good understanding of carbohydrates and protein and making sure that what I eat during a tournament is a little bit different. I’ll have a little bit more carbs after a tough match, and I’ll usually need more iron, so I’ll eat a good piece of steak.
What’s your workout routine like when you’re off the court? What was it like during your hiatus from tennis?
I love spending time outdoors. I actually didn’t grow up being a really good runner; I didn’t enjoy long-distance running. Tennis is very explosive, so I always did quick drills rather than long distance. But I had a chance to really gain an appreciation for long-distance, so I’ll go to Central Park or go to Boston and run around the reservoirs there. I just started doing yoga, and I had more time to do hot yoga. And what else…Indoor cycling. I’ve done a few different classes. My good friend is Akin Akman, who teaches a SoulCycle class in New York that I love.
What about your emotional recovery? People are calling this a comeback tour. How do you feel about that terminology? Does it feel, emotionally, like a comeback to you?
I think terminology doesn’t really matter when you start doing your job. It’s just part of an article or part of a headline. Once you go out on the court, you should just be playing and competing. It’s tough to say. I guess what I love about tennis is that it allows you to get back to reality very fast, no matter how confident you are. Even if you have a tough match and it goes one way, tennis is a cycle and it’s so continuous and you always have a chance to change it in the next week. If you do have a great week, you have another chance next week to make sure that you keep that confidence and that level of play and you maintain it, which is a whole other ballgame.
I want to ask about your book: there is a part where you talk about the moment you signed a contract with Nike when you were a very young girl, and how that’s when you first understood that tennis wasn’t just a sport, that it was a business. Can you expand on that? How has that influenced your perception of yourself as a player, and your perception yourself as a brand?
When you’re very young, you don’t have a very good understanding of what tennis brings if you’re successful. It’s not like a class you take. It’s not a school environment in which you’re like, “this it how it goes.” In tennis, you just learn as you go. And when I was at the academy in Bollettieri training, I realized there are these star players that ultimately drive this machine and this force. And I was one of them. I was always showcased on the center court. Eventually, you start questioning these things and then you realize there’s more to the game than just hitting a tennis ball.
I read a profile of you recently that compared you to Taylor Swift. I think the comparison kind of stems from your awareness of yourself as a brand. Would you agree with that analysis?
It’s interesting when people say the word “brand.” As I live my life, it’s not something that pops up in my mind. The decisions that I make are not, “Oh, this is good for my brand, this is not.” The decisions that I make are based on what I’m passionate about, and what I want to be a part of. That’s the way my relationships have been successful. And if that ultimately means I’m a great brand that’s evolved over the years, then so be it.
But at the same time, you’re obviously very conscious of your own brand.
I think so, yeah, but I think sometimes those words have very corporate kind of [implications]. Whereas for me, I have a very personal understanding of what I want to do and what I love, because I’ve given myself the opportunity to make those choices.
The same profile also compared you to Taylor Swift and Serena Williams to Beyonce. Williams is obviously a player you’ve been pitted against in the media throughout your career. How do you feel about that dichotomy?
I don’t know. I’m not someone who looks at things like that. I think you just go about your life and your business with the best influence you can. I think those are external comparisons. Those are not the ones you create for yourself.
Your description of overhearing Serena Williams cry after you beat her in 2004 has gotten a lot of controversy. Why did you feel the need to put that in your book?
Well in 2004, when I won the final, that was a big part of my career. And I think I talked about it in 8-10 pages of the book and I think the book’s like 300 pages, but of course just because so much of my rivalry has been talked about in the media, I think those pages were picked up. Winning Wimbledon at 17-years-old and beating a 2-time defending champion was a huge part of my career, so it was inevitable that I would speak about that match.
Do you see it as a rivalry?
I think, it’s tough to call a rivalry because I haven’t been [that] successful against her. [Ed.: In 21 head-to-head matches, Williams has won 19 times.] But it is definitely a match-up that comes with a lot of excitement and people look forward to it, absolutely.
You’re 30, so you’re at the age where you’re probably thinking about when you’re going to stop playing. What do you see for yourself; how do you want to close your your career?
I never thought that I’d be playing at this age. I thought that I’d be most likely retired by now, but I think there’s a growing appreciation of what the body can do at this age and what you’re capable of and the physical strain that your body still can take and the level that you can compete at. And you see examples of Roger Federer and Serena and Venus — I mean, look at Venus getting to the semi-finals here and just the level that she’s able to play at. Those are incredible examples that I can look up to. They’ve had a long career and their bodies still able to do such amazing things, so that gives me confidence and I certainly see myself playing for many more years.
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