Glamour: ‘I’m fighting for equality!’ Maria Sharapova gets real about equal pay, body image and mental wellbeing
Maria Sharapova practically defines the term ‘determination’. As a six-year-old Russian girl who spoke practically zero English, she and her father arrived in USA with only the money in their pocket and one dream: to turn Maria into a champion.
Now 31 years old, Maria’s achievements speak of someone who has lived an entire life. She’s won every single tennis Grand Slam title, with a tally of titles to date. Her wealth of sporting endorsements, from Nike to Evian, have turned her into the highest-paid sportswoman in the world for 11 consecutive years. And now, whilst she still slays it on the court, she has embarked on yet another path: a businesswoman as the founder of confectionary line, Sugarpova.
Meeting Maria Sharapova in real life is like having an audience with the Oprah of sport. Empowerment practically punctuates her every conversation. And here, Maria opens up about her journey with body image – her mother gave her carrot juice to make here grow (who knew), how she works on her own mental health and why the highs and the lows of her career are still in front of her…
What has determination taught you about your self?
The sport itself – from starting at a very young age – is all about repetition, focus and grind because it was all about numbers. The more you did, the better you became, the more confident you became at a shot or stroke. That mentality grew over time and it’s taking me to different parts of my career in business with Sugapova, for example. There are so many things in a sporting career you learn along the way that sometimes don’t help you with the sport itself but outside the sport.
What’s the greatest sacrifice you’ve had to make?
Being away from my family for a long period of time is really tough. I moved to the US from Russia when I was 6 years old and I didn’t see my mum for the first two years. There are no guarantees in tennis, there’s no guarantees in life. When you’re young, you do everything you can to become a champion and you try to get the best resources and the best coach and the best people around to make you a champion, but you never know. You can take any path in life and sometimes they lead you to the wrong destination. You commit yourself mentally and financially with the people around you for this one goal and you never know if it’s going to work out.
What have you learnt about yourself in those moments of sacrifice?
The way I handle a situation that comes at me, for example losing a match that was really tough and I was up and ahead and I ended up losing at the end, the way I come off the court, the way I think about it mentally and process it. I take it not as failure but something that didn’t work out and what can I become better at. If I can think about it like that in my sporting world, I’ll be able to take those few little things and bring it into my life, my personal life and my business. So much of life is about perspective.
How do you look after your mental wellbeing?
I like to read a lot to calm down. When I’m on the court, everything is about that moment. Sometimes the crowd is drinking their Pimms and eating strawberries. But you know how important that point is, but they don’t actually recognise it. You’re like, ‘get with the programme everyone!’ I love being focused. I have a determination for what I do, and I’m certainly not shy to show it. I perform, I’m an entertainer and I like to give everything I’ve got. Everyone is always a work in progress and there’s some things I’m good at and some things I’m fragile.
What is your most fragile?
When I’m impatient. By doing well, you want to see results and this sport consistently teaches me it doesn’t come overnight. It takes time so I’m always itching to see what comes out of the work I put in. It always comes in at very different times to what I imagined.
If someone was lacking determination, what would you say?
Keep doing it. Sometimes it only takes a few people to tell you they believe in you and for all the others that don’t, it’s the people that know you and matter to you. Their determination is much more valuable because of the years they spent with you and they know you inside and out.
Can you remember a time your support network has picked you up?
Always. I’m an only child so I’m a golden child where so much of their life is focused on me, especially when I was younger. My father was my coach, my mother did everything in order to make me comfortable. She made me carrot juice in the morning because I was short, and she thought that if I drank carrot juice, I’d be taller for my sport because I needed that. They’re always there. My friends are incredible, I have a great team around me that push me. I see more of my professional tennis team than I see my family because we’re in it every single day, all hours. You travel together, train together so your interests become intertwined.
You always have promoted a healthy, strong body image. But what’s your journey with body image been like?
I was a lot taller and very skinny when I was young, so I was wobbly, and I didn’t always feel stable. I was an odd one out. I was doing well and training so much and beating a lot of older girls and I don’t think that was very popular. I felt like I was on a mission to become a professional athlete and that was waking up early in the morning and training and going to sleep early. I didn’t have access to a lot of things. There weren’t many sleepovers or trips to the mall. So, I wasn’t really ever affected by that.
We all suffer with moments of being body conscious – but you have to go out there and compete in short dresses. How do you overcome that?
You have to go with it. I’ve been so fortunate. I’ve worked with Nike ever since I was 11 so I have their trust in what they are creating. I’ve worked with their designers for so many years. When I go onto the court, I know I have something beautifully made with beautiful material that’s been engineered particularly for sport. When you’re out and sweating and trying to beat your opponent, you don’t think about your body.
You have risen to the top of your sport, but you still get asked so many sexist questions. With people saying you are ‘too emotional,’ or ‘not emotional enough.’ Those kinds of emotive questions aren’t asked of men. How do you deal with these questions? How does it make you feel?
I’ve been prepared ever since I was young. With tennis we have to go to a press conference whether we’ve won or lost with every single match. Journalists can come in there and there’s no boundaries, guide or rulebook. They can ask you whatever you want whether it’s professional or personal. Sometimes you go in after a match and you don’t get one question about the match. I’m there to try and win a tournament but that’s a very small part of it. You have to go in there and be professional. Questions can get tricky and they might not fall in line with what you have prepared for them to ask you and that’s ok. That’s how life is. You get things thrown at you and you have to deliver and accept them.
Is there a sexist question that annoys you most?
No. If you look at the trajectory of an athlete’s career, it’s such a small part of our life. 10 or 15 minutes later, you go home and you’re with your family or loved one is sick, there’s more important things in life we have to worry about. Yes, you get faced with questions that are uncomfortable or you don’t feel good about, but you have to face them and give them your perspective.
You are the second highest sportswoman in the world and yet the equal pay debate in tennis is still raging on. How do you find that debate?
I still feel like it’s a debate. Female athletes are fighting for that equality, which is the right thing to do but is it right to still be doing it in 2019? No! It’s another thing we have to fight for, and we do because it’s part of our profession and part of our life. I want equality across the entire board and across all sports.
When it comes to Sugarpova how has it been being a female businesswoman?
I love being a female businesswoman in the candy world because it’s completely different to my day job. What’s been interesting is coming into a career in which I didn’t have a lot of knowledge. From that perspective, that was difficult, but I forced the questions that men and maybe women didn’t think about because they were in there every single day so that I enjoy. I’ve learnt a lot; I know what works and what I want to do with it.
What’s the biggest thing you’ve learnt about yourself through becoming a business woman?
I’ve learnt to take responsibility. When you’re on a call and a lot of the time they’re a lot older than I am that are much more experienced in the industry, but I feel like I have to take the lead and I’ve learnt how to handle that. I want to give people the space to contribute to my company, but you are the driver of it.
How do you focus when you have so much going on at once?
I have one priority. That’s always been my sport. The feeling of being an athlete. When you used to travel and you have to fill out immigration forms and it says what is your occupation, my favourite thing was to write, ‘athlete.’ When I wake up and put on my sports gear, I love the feeling of knowing I was be better at my craft. With that in mind, I’ll wake up and do a few work emails unrelated to my sport, but I’ll get on the court and I’ll train, and my mind is 100% there. When I’m off it, there’s not much I can do so I like challenging myself and putting on my businesswoman hat on. It’s nice to have other things going on in your life. It’s helped me become better at my sport.
What’s the best piece of advice you have ever received?
You always have to keep your feet on the ground. My mother is an incredible example of that. When I’d have a tough patch, she’d say, ‘life is like a zebra. You have a white line and a black line. When things go well, it’s not going to keep going. That’s the trajectory of life. You’ll always have ups and downs. When everything is taken away from your life and you’re stripped down of all the luxuries, what do you live for?’ That’s a really inspiring question.
What do you live for?
To be healthy, to be happy, to be around people I love and admire, that inspire and motivate me. I live to travel the world. I love culturally exploring and meeting people and improving my own self. I do that in my sport and off the court as well. You don’t do that by sitting on the couch or sitting on social media, you have to get out there and face opposition and your fears.
How do you deal with negativity?
As long as it’s just a feeling, it’s normal to react and be sensitive to criticism. I don’t think you should ever stand up and say that doesn’t bother me, but you have to think how impactful are those words and those people? Is that someone whose opinion you really care about?
How do you get over it?
What I put out and give is what matters. Opinions are healthy because that’s what makes the world go round. If everyone always thought great things about what you said and what you wore and how did you do your hair, that wouldn’t be fun. It shouldn’t influence or impact your life.
What’s the difference between the you who lifted the Wimbledon trophy at 17 years old and the you of today?
You live so much of life for 15 years since that victory. You see so much, you learn so much, you grow, you fall, you get back up. You have to accept it. Winning Wimbledon at 17 is magical and becomes even more magical as the years go by because when you’re in that moment at such a young age, it doesn’t really hit you. It’s very instant and in the moment but it’s really the reflection that’s really nice.
Are you still doing it for that 17-year-old girl?
I love this sport. There’s nothing in my life that gives that unique feeling. You always feel that one of us will have a chance and whoever takes that chance will be the champion. I do whatever I can to take that chance.
What’s your empowerment mantra?
Be yourself in a world where we’re influenced by so many people and by so many things. We sometimes look track of what we care about and what we want to do, of our own opinion. Ask yourself is that what I want to do, say, go about my life. With peer pressure today, you want to be part of pact, of a group but ultimately you have to be happy in your own skin and it takes looking in the mirror and asking yourself the question, am I happy with the choices I’m making?
What’s the low and high you learnt the most from in your life?
Those are ahead of me. I never think there was something so impactful in a way that I always consistently look back at. Everyday we face challenges and some days are better than others and I treat it that way. Life is much better from the front in the steering wheel than the rear-view mirror.
If you were going to OD on a Sugarpova treat what would it be?
A chocolate covered gummie. But you have to have balance in your life. I’ll consistently say no to things that you want to experience or foods you want to have. I love food. Even though I train consistently hard and I watch my diet. I love a good treat and that’s what Sugarpova is about. I sometimes go all out when I’m on vacation and allowed to treat myself but on the weekends, I’ll give myself a day off and do all my taste testing.
What’s one piece for new person starting a business?
No task is too small. No matter how high you are, how you’ve grown, you can never delegate too many things. If it’s something important to you, you get it done.