CBS: Maria Sharapova: Back on court
“Game on” has special meaning for tennis great Maria Sharapova. After all, she’s just getting back into the game after being exiled for a drug violation. Tracy Smith has her story:
Maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising that Maria Sharapova looked so good at this year’s U.S. Open, despite an early exit. After all, she’s a five-time Grand Slam champ. But remember, just last year, things looked pretty awful, when she and something called meldonium became front-page news. “I don’t want to end my career this way,” she said at a 2016 press conference. “And I really hope that I will be given another chance to play this game.”
“2016, you get an email saying that you failed a urine test. What went through your head when you opened that email?” asked Smith.
“Oh gosh, I had no knowledge of what it was,” Sharapova said. “I thought it was a mistake at first. Because I had been getting certificates of approval for years on this product, and I never had a problem with it. And then I realized that it became banned on January 1st, and I had zero knowledge of it.”
“In your gut, what did that feel like?”
“I think in the beginning, it was disbelief. I think the first thing I thought of was, ‘How could I not know? How did I not have this information?'”
“How could you not know?”
“I still don’t know!” she laughed.
Meldonium is listed as a performance-enhancing drug. Sharapova admitted she’d been taking it, but for health reasons. She blamed the International Tennis Federation for failing to make sure players knew which substances were banned. After a number of hearings, Sharapova was suspended from playing tennis for 15 months.
Smith asked, “Do you feel like you were being made an example of?”
“I don’t want to believe so. But I do question it.”
“That sounds like a yes.”
“I will never know.”
Now, at 30 years old. she’s trying to stage a comeback. It was something she never questioned: “No, no. I knew that I’d come back no matter what the time frame was.”
It’s the latest chapter in a true rags-to-riches story.
Maria Sharapova was born in Siberia, the only child to Yelena and Yuri. Yuri played tennis, and from age four Maria did, too. Early on, her talent and tenacity were obvious, but tennis schools were limited in Russia. So, in 1993 Maria and Yuri moved to the U.S.
When they arrived, her dad was scrambling. “Yeah, my father had $700 in his pocket, rolled up,” Sharapova said.
It was enough to get them to the famed Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, where Sharapova earned a scholarship, and formed a plan: “I grew up being the skinniest girl; I grew up being an outcast; I grew up someone from another country in America, playing with kids that were mostly from the United States,” she said. “I didn’t speak the language very well in the first year or two that I was there. So I always felt like I was by myself. But yet, I was there on a mission. I was there to do something. And my mission was really simple: it was to beat everyone that I was playing against.”
As a teenager, Sharapova was competing around the world — a standout who was tough to ignore, for many reasons.
Smith asked, “When did you first realize that you grunt?”
“I think when I came to America for the first time and I saw how many children around me were grunting,” she laughed. “And that I was one of the other children that was grunting on the court.”
“But come on, your noise that you make is unique.”
“Definitely louder,” she laughed. “Absolutely.”
“Have you tried to control it?”
“You can’t control it?”
“No one ever really asked me to!” she laughed. “To be fair, I haven’t really given it a try!”
If the grunt was attention-getting, what Sharapova did at Wimbledon in 2004 was downright stunning. At just 17 years old, she defeated two-time defending champion Serena Williams.
Going back to the locker room, she overheard Williams crying. “It was a moment where you almost, you just feel like you don’t want to witness,” Sharapova said.
She shares that moment in her new autobiography “Unstoppable” (Macmillan), which mixes her life story with her frank opinions, like how she thinks Serena fakes her falls on court.
Smith asked, “Do you honestly think that she acts when she falls down? That that’s not real?”
“I think some of it isn’t, no.”
“Why do you say that?”
“It’s a feeling,” Sharapova said. “It’s a feeling when you’re playing someone across the net. Just based on experience.”
“You said, ‘Serena and I should be friends. But we’re not.'”
“Not at all?”
For the record, of the 21 times Sharapova and Williams have played each other, Sharapova has only won twice.
Still, Sharapova’s a superstar — ranked #1 in the world in both 2005 and 2007. She’s the second-highest-paid female athlete in the world (right after Serena Williams).
It seems, Smith said, like Sharapova has the perfect life, “if you look at your Instagram account.”
“I think everyone has a perfect life on Instagram!” Sharapova laughed.
So, what’s missing? “Oh, I don’t think of what’s missing; I always think of what we can add.”
She’d eventually like to have a family, but now isn’t the time for a boyfriend.
“No. I think last year probably would have been too selfish and difficult to have something serious,” she said. “Just through the process that I was going. I think it would have been difficult to just have someone that’s in your life, in one of the most challenging times in your career, to just kind of come in and be part of that hustle.”
“You don’t think you’d be fun to date over the past year?” Smith asked. “Is that what you’re saying?”
“I’m not sure. But I didn’t really give them much choice!” she laughed.
Just last week, Maria Sharapova won the Tianjin Open in China, her first title since the suspension. She knows she won’t win every match, but Sharapova isn’t one to ever feel defeated.
Smith said, “You’ve had so many remarkable achievements — five-time Grand Slam winner. Yet, forever, you’re gonna be linked to doping. Is that maddening?”
“Umm, I think it’s unfortunate.”
“It’s gotta be more than unfortunate.”
“No. It doesn’t take away from anything that I ever achieved. It doesn’t make me feel that way. I know how hard it was to accomplish what I did, and the achievements that I had. And no one will ever be able to take that away from me.”