CN Traveler: Maria Sharapova on Tennis, Travel, and Why She Likes to Get Lost on Vacation: Women Who Travel Podcast
Maria Sharapova loves Italy. She just got back from vacation in Italy. If you ask her where she wants to go on vacation next, it’s Italy. (Ischia, Venice, Tuscany, and Sicily to be slightly more precise.) For the Olympic medalist and five time Grand Slam winner who travels more than 25 weeks out of the year, finding a place where you can just turn off is key — and quick three-day city breaks to Rome and Positano in between tournaments and training have done just that. This week, she’s far from the Mediterranean, competing against Serena Williams in the first round of the U.S. Open in New York City—but before the Russian player hit the court, we sat down to chat about her love for the boot-shaped country, her favorite solo trips, and how she’s made a home for herself in the U.S.
Thanks to Maria for calling in this week (and good luck at the Open). And thanks as always to Brett Fuchs for engineering and mixing. Check back every Tuesday for the latest installment of Women Who Travel. To keep up with our podcast each week, subscribe to Women Who Travel on the iTunes store or Spotify and if you have a minute to spare, leave a review — we’d love to hear from you.
Meredith Carey: Hey everyone, my name is Meredith Carey and you’re listening to Women Who Travel, a podcast from Condé Nast Traveler. With me in the studio today, as always is my co-host Lale Arikoglu.
Lale Arikoglu: Hello.
MC: And calling in we have a very special guest, Olympic medalist and five time Grand Slam winner, Maria Sharapova. Thanks to tennis, she spends 25 weeks a year on the road, so we thought who better to question about travel. Thank you so much for joining us, Maria.
Maria Sharapova: Thank you for having me.
LA: So I wanted to kick off with maybe what seems like an obvious question, but as Meredith just said, you spend half the year on the road traveling. And playing into tournaments and training takes you to all sorts of amazing places around the world. And as with any job when you travel, it can sometimes be hard to actually experience that place. And I’d love to know-
LA: … what kind of routines you use and tricks for getting to see a snapshot of a place when you visit it.
MS: Well, when you say it like that, it feels like I’m never home, which is very true because I just got home after being away for almost three months and I was going to meet a few friends and go to a local restaurant. I was like, “Wait, what do we have around here? It’s been so long.” So I do travel a lot and I could talk about it all day long because I love to travel, I love experiences, I love cultures and meeting people. I think that’s one of the best ways to grow and it’s one of my favorite activities.
Playing and competing and traveling is tricky because while you’re excited to be visiting these incredible cities that I get to play in, a lot of my job is to be focused on what I’m there to do, and my job is very physical and so the recovery aspect is very important.
So I do spend a lot of time in hotel rooms in those amazing cities. But for the times that I do get to spend a little bit outside of my room, I try to choose a part of the city that I’ve never been to before and ultimately get lost in it. Like maybe have a starting point or a recommendation or maybe my friend’s been somewhere before, a district such as in Paris, and then you just find yourself losing control of time and maybe having a great meal and stopping. I’m not afraid to stop at places that maybe are not so crowded or maybe no one has heard before. I think that makes travel that much more fun.
LA: And sort of in your recent travels is that anywhere that you’re desperate to go back to when you’re not competing and actually get to see it?
MS: I love Italy, I think most of us do, and I haven’t explored Italy as much as I would have liked to. I’ve played a tournament in Rome for many years, so I know Rome a little bit better. I visited Positano last year. Every time I have a summer holiday, I do try to add a few days in Italy because there’s something so special about being on that coast and seeing the water and being in the Mediterranean. And in the summertime they’re just, they’re fun, the food is always amazing and you just, you kind of can’t go wrong.
In Positano, we were there for a few days and we have friends at Le Sirenuse, which we love staying at. When you know people, it makes the experience that much better. We visited Ischia, which I also actually want to go back to, because we only spent one evening there and I think we had one of our best meals at a very discreet spot that a friend of ours recommended. And there were no customers there—we were skeptical of going inside—but we ended up having one of the best meals of all time. And now it’s become the It destination to go back to, so hoping to do that. I’ve never been to Venice and I’ve never been to Sicily. So all those, and parts of Tuscany I’ve never been to. So I guess all those are on my list.
MC: You were talking about how you spend so much time in your hotel room. Do you have any tricks for making it feel less like a hotel room or any traditions that you have every time you get to a new hotel?
MS: I keep it pretty basic because, unlike many others, even if I’m there for a long time, I don’t unpack all my clothes. There’s usually very limited closet space and limited shelves. I’m a pretty good packer so I kind of, I keep things, I know where they are. If I need to hang things, I obviously do. But I like minimalism and I like to see my room is clean and my bed is nice. And I think in a hotel, it’s always the small things that make it really comfortable. And I think, I mean, groups like the Aman obviously do it to another level, kind of the seamless design aesthetic of what they’ve done. The Belmond Group I think is doing an incredible job since they’d been taken over by LVMH. It’s more like in the sheets and the small things that you know will make your stay enjoyable.
MC: When you were talking about vacationing in Italy, I’m curious, when you’re taking these personal trips because you are traveling for work so often, like what your priorities are when you’re picking the place that you’re going or the type of trip that you want? What do you want to be doing when you’re actually on vacation?
MS: I want to be doing nothing. Because I like to mix a little bit of culture with just being by the water. I love the water a little bit more than I’d love winter vacations in the snow. Maybe because I was always, I grew up in Sochi, in Russia. I was born in Siberia, then I was in Florida and now I spend a lot of time in Los Angeles. I’m always around water and even though I don’t go in the water very often, that feeling like peacefulness of water is a nice feeling. And whenever I go on vacation, I want that as well.
But I think it’s more of an escape and usually I do a lot of research and I have a lot of, as we all do, notes in my phone and I put a lot of places that I want to visit. And when I have two or three days—which is usually all I have in between some events or if I have a vacation, it’s usually a maximum of five days. So I’ll go back to that list and I’ll choose a place that I’m keen on visiting, and I’ll go there and explore. And sometimes it ends up being an amazing trip and relaxing and sometimes it’s not what you expect, but at least you did it.
LA: So I’m the sort of person who packs a pair of running shoes in their suitcase and then never takes them out when they’re on a trip. And obviously I-
MS: I pack it, I do actually, I do use it. But more for walking or hiking and then going to the gym.
LA: Okay. That makes me feel so much better. And I think, I’m sure I speak to lots of people who are listening when I say that I’m very intrigued to hear how when you are traveling for pleasure, how you juggle training and do you have a need or a requirement to like get up and play tennis at like 6:00 a.m. or do you just like, as you said, kind of just hike and walk around and kind of dial things back?
MS: Yeah. Well training, training while on vacation is impossible because you’re, not only is it mentally so difficult knowing that everyone around you is on holiday and you have to wake up at 6:00, then you might as well just be in a training center in the middle of nowhere and just doing your job. So when I do take that time for myself or for my family and spend time with my boyfriend, it’s really, it’s that time for us, and it’s so nice to be able to unplug. And I think it does always take at least 24 hours or 48 hours to really kind of get in the groove of, “Okay, now I can exhale and I can just, I can do nothing.” You know, you’re not tied to responsibilities or daily responsibilities that we all have.
LA: And also, you were saying if you’re traveling with friends or traveling with your boyfriend, often traveling for work means having a lot of solo time. And we talk about solo travel a lot on this podcast and how you kind of learn to become comfortable with your own company on the road. Do you find yourself traveling alone a lot and if so, do you enjoy it? Do you have ways to kind of make it work for you?
MS: I remember taking one of my favorite trips ever was alone and I went to Amsterdam. And I went there for just a few days, but it was… I was a little scared as we would all be, but I was so liberated at the end of it and I felt like I didn’t have to plan an agenda even though I’m a big planner and I would like to know where I’m going, or I would like to have an idea, or at least a list of things that I’m excited or wanting to see. But it was a moment of, okay, it’s like dinner for one, and then the concierge would be like, “Oh, it’s not two?” I’m like, “No, no, no. It’s just for one.”
And it is slightly odd and strange being a solo traveler. But it is, I’d say at the end of it, there’s like a moment of, “Oh, I’m really proud that I did that and I took time for myself.” Because I think we’re always influenced by, even when we’re with our family or our best friends, we are always influenced not only by the travels but by the person that’s next to you and kind of their opinions. And you know, you’re always talking through things and sometimes it’s good to just be in your own world and in your own mind and come to your own conclusions. And I think that’s what makes solo traveling the best.
MC: I’m curious because being empowered to travel, especially traveling abroad, is so tied to having the funds to be able to do that. And you became such a big name when you were so young. I’m curious what it felt like to suddenly come into that and then at what point did traveling for fun and getting to spend the money on taking a solo trip to Amsterdam or going somewhere with your family actually became a priority for you?
MS: Yes. As you mentioned, I moved to the United States from Russia when I was just seven years old and I moved with my father at the time with only $700. So our travel was very limited and we took public transport all the time. And we landed in Miami airport and it was just a new world, a new language, a new country. Everything was new and a lot of it was very exciting and a lot of it was very scary. And I think those, probably those first few years just being with my father — my mom couldn’t join us because of visa issues — was probably the most, is the toughest part of my journey to America and learning the language and finding my own voice in it all.
I wrote a book a few years ago, like somewhat of an autobiography and I think the first part of the book was my favorite to write because I spent hours and hours sitting at the dinner table with my father and just capturing that journey and going back to the childhood and finding understanding and meaning of travel, because that was such a pinnacle moment in my life.
LA: It’s so interesting what you say about mentioning that your mother couldn’t come to the U.S. because of visas and I feel like as someone who also moved to the U.S., given I did it as an adult, suddenly having to go through that visa process, opened my eyes to actually how free movement is such a luxury and my whole understanding of travel and how I moved around the world changed after I had to go through that process and realize that it wasn’t a given that I could go everywhere.
MS: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. And I still, I hold a Russian passport and have an American green card. So, I find myself at the visa offices very often, whether it’s a Schengen visa to Europe, or a British visa, or a Chinese visa that I’ll be getting for the few tournaments I’ll be playing at the end of the year. So yeah, I definitely know what that’s like. And getting that and your passport. And I think we all have the same feeling when we go through the passport controls and we get our passport stamped and we see where we traveled around the world and how incredible it is to have had those experiences. And I think it is really the world’s biggest luxury because on so many levels it is one of the most expensive things that we enjoy. Travel isn’t cheap for anyone no matter how you’re flying, no matter where you’re staying. It’s costly and we have to make it meaningful, but it’s so inspiring.
MC: I want to talk to you just a little bit about home because I know that when you started, you were talking about coming back to L.A. and not kind of like knowing what was going on because you’ve been away for three months. I’m curious when you are spending half of your year outside of your home, kind of like how you create that sense of home and build up those relationships and all of those things when you’re traveling so much.
MS: It’s usually much easier to do if I’m in Europe because I have a lot of family there, I have a lot of friends there. And so it doesn’t feel like I’ve been away for three months and it’s been a mixture of New York, Florida and majority of the two months were all over Europe. And I actually came back the other day to California and I noticed that I was away since my birthday and I see all these random birthday gifts and I’m like, “Oh my goodness, I don’t even remember who got me this because I left the day after.” So I have these crazy, crazy moments where I really recognize that I’m away from home.
But in the moment when I’m there and when I’m experiencing all these treasures and countries and meeting people and I’m able to share those experiences with my family and my friends, and as I said to me, that is the best gift that I can give anyone is to include the people that mean the most to me in my travels. That’s what makes it like home. I mean, I do need a few extra like face masks, but other than that, it is the people that make it very homey.
LA: And kind of speaking to that point of you ostensibly being based in LA. What was the point in which you decided to kind of make that move to the US full time? That’s, you know, you kind of mentioned it before, but, mentally and geographically it’s such a big leap to make.
MS: Well, I got used to this lifestyle very quickly. I think because of my profession, I moved to the United States because of tennis and to develop this talent and goal and dream. I just ended up living here and that’s where I trained. And with the years that passed, I just made new friends and I met so many people along the way, I consider it my home. And yet so much of my upbringing and so much of the culture that I treasure and value is still very much in the depths of Russian culture. Most of my family still lives in Sochi and the south of Russia, so I still have that deep connection with it. But in terms of where I’ve rooted myself, it’s certainly in the United States.
LA: Do you remember when you first moved to the States with your dad, what were the things about the States that surprised you the most? Was there anything that was really hard to get used to or that you kind of thought like, “this is a bit weird”?
MS: There were a few things that were weird because I wasn’t used to them like one, just the simplicity of certain things such as going to the grocery store in your car, pulling up to the store and getting a cart and then just putting groceries in your cart and then wheeling it back to a car and then pretty much delivering your groceries in front of your garage or right into the house. When I was growing up in Russia, it was a much tougher system and those are the things that are so easily taken for granted. But like we would, you know, you’d have to find little markets that would sell milk. And then you’d find the best markets that sell the best vegetables. And then you’d go on public transportation and then you take another 20 minute walk up to your apartment and then there’s no elevator. So it’s like those things, I’m like, okay, well that’s a little bit easier, like I consider that a luxury.
It was much bigger in space and I spent the first few years in a tennis academy and it was, it very much felt like a factory. It was very produced and very clinical and it was the same every single day. And in many ways it taught me like rituals and routines, but it was very repetitive, so I didn’t travel that much when I was very young. I kind of stayed in the Florida area and played junior tournaments there, so I wasn’t really exposed to the rest of the world until probably got in my early teens.
MC: I’m curious when you were talking about face masks earlier, what you do to take care of yourself when you’re not having to worry about tennis?
MS: I… What do I do for myself? I love to treat myself to the spa. I love a good Russian steam bath. They beat you with eucalyptus leaves, it’s like a Russian tradition when you go to a sauna, like a really warm sauna in Russia. So I do that and it feels amazing. I don’t know if any of you’ve tried it before. I love massages. I do get facials because I’m in the sun so much and I have a lot of pigmentation on my skin, so I treat myself to a facial. But other than that, that’s it.
MC: We do have a Russian bath that’s right by our office. I don’t think anyone has gone from the office to the Russian bath, but we do in fact have one very close.
MS: Is it the one on 10th Street?
MC: No, it is the one that’s just south of the Brooklyn Bridge.
MS: I’ve been to the one on 10th Street and it’s intense.
MC: I have friends who have also been to the on 10th Street. It is intense.
MS: It’s intense, but you feel good after.
LA: I need to try these eucalyptus leaves. My dad’s Turkish, so I feel like I’ve experienced the hammam, but this will be a whole new dimension.
MS: Oh, yes. Yeah, the hammam is a good, gentler version of it.
LA: So I think, kind of focusing on tennis a little bit more, as an outsider, I see it as a real anomaly in sport in that female players are as big a stars as male players and draw the same crowds, which I think is really special. And thanks to women like Billie Jean King, a lot of tournaments offer equal prize money regardless of your gender. Do you think that right now is an exciting time for women in sport in general? And do you see what’s happening in tennis spreading to other fields or do you feel like there’s still a lot of work to be done?
MS: I think there’s always work to be done and it’ll always be continuous. But I think what’s exciting is that it feels like in today’s world women have more confidence to express themselves, to really show that they have a voice and they have a platform and to really use it. I do think that they might have been more shy than they are now and they will continue to step up. And so that excites me very much.
And equality and being paid equally, that’s something that, as female tennis players, we’ve been fighting for a very long time because that’s not what it was like many years ago and still in some events it isn’t. So we continue to fight for that by being there, by doing our job the best that we can, right? For holding our voice and stepping out onto our platform and our arena and performing and hoping that people enjoy and love what we do.
LA: Do you think that there are particular ways in which it’s beneficial for women both in sport and I guess you could say and beyond when it comes to equality in the workplace, can kind of empower each other and lift each other up?
MS: Oh, absolutely. I love sitting down with women in different businesses and not even necessarily in sport and talking about their goals and their intuitions and their businesses and where they see themselves. Sometimes it’s actually, I mean it’s amazing to have conversations with your female, like alongside your female friends, but sometimes the best conversations come about when you don’t quite know someone and you’re getting to know them and you’re getting to know their story and where they look to go to. And that sense of confidence between two people and maybe a bit of mentorship and support is so important and to help keep raising each other up. Yeah, I’m definitely, I’m certainly an advocate for it and I love spending that time with the female entrepreneurs that I come across in my career.
LA: And I just have one final question, which is where are you heading to next? Have you got any travel plans?
MS: I do. I’m headed to Toronto and then New York City for the US Open.
MC: Amazing. Well, if people want to follow your journey while you’re at the US Open or just generally, because I know you share a lot of your travels on Instagram, where can people find you?
MS: I am on Maria Sharapova throughout Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and I think that’s all there is, right?
MC: I think so.
MS: I’m not on Pinterest. I don’t know if I can keep up with much more, but yes, I’m Maria Sharapova on those platforms.
MC: Amazing. I’m @ohheytheremere.
LA: I’m at @lalehannah.
MC: You can find new episodes of Women Who Travel every Tuesday on Spotify and iTunes and everywhere you listen to podcasts. And you can also find more stories, including a story from Maria where she shared all of her travel hacks and tips from last year at womenwhotravel.com.