Suspended for fifteen months for doping, Maria Sharapova returns to compete at the end of April, with Roland Garros in her line of sight. Former number 1 in the world of tennis speaks for the first time in France since her suspension.
By Carole Bouchard, special correspondent in California, photos by Roman Cho
Maria Sharapova returns. She had been suspended in March 2016 after testing positive for meldonium, a substance that had just been banned for top-level athletes. Maria Sharapova had used this substance since 2006 to treat a magnesium deficit, cardiac arrhythmia and to prevent a genetic predisposition to diabetes. Today, the Russian tennis player has served her fifteen months of suspension (she tested positive on January 26, 2016). When returning to the competition in Stuttgart (Germany), a tournament that begins on April 24, the almost-30-year-old star intends to rise to her past level. Born in Nyagan, Siberia, a year after her parents fled Gomel (Belarus) – an area contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster -, she resides in the United States since 1994. When she was 7 years old, she took her first tennis lessons at the Bollettieri Academy in Florida, with her father juggling between jobs to meet the needs of the family. She won Wimbledon in 2004, when she was 17, in her first foray into glory. Then she won the US Open in 2006, the Australian Open in 2008, and Roland-Garros in 2012 and 2014. Today living in Los Angeles, the former number 1 in the world has prepared for her come-back in California. In the garden of the Parker Palm Springs, where she meets us in March at lunch time, we find her 6’ 2’’ figure smiling, secure, and physically very fit. Wearing a black tracksuit top and pants, knitted sports sweater, with her long blonde hair wore in a bun, she enjoys being under the sun with a glass of lemon water and confides to us, without contrition.
She says she is ready, but she knows that the road will be long
Masha – diminutive for Maria in Russia – believes she has paid for her “mistake”, which she recognized as soon as her test results were out. Today, she presents the judgment of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) to those who accused her of doping: did it not reduce her suspension time from twenty-four to fifteen months? Did it not specify that she was guilty “of a violation of the anti-doping code,” but “without significant fault”, in other words without the intention of cheating? Maria Sharapova now wants to turn the age. She hopes to obtain an invitation (a wild-card) for Roland Garros, which begins on May 22 in Paris. It is the only way for her to participate.
For this purpose, she has met Bernard Giudicelli, the President of the French Tennis Federation, while attending the Indian Wells tournament in the United States, last March. She said she was ready, but she knows that the road will be long and difficult. In 2008, already a victim of a serious injury to the right shoulder, she had to undergo a difficult operation, without any guarantee of success. It has taken her three years to regain her game and again reach new the semi-finals of a Grand Slam tournament.
Maria Sharapova is a warrior. She likes to win and make others dream. And monetize all this. Fashion icon, businesswoman, praised in the entire world; she owns a brand she needs to restore. In order to prove that Maria will always be Maria.
Her sponsors have remained faithful to her
It is she who has rhymed performance with elegance. Long and lithe blonde with polar beauty, Maria Sharapova has certainly not introduced glamour on the tennis courts. But, unlike her compatriot Anna Kournikova, whose (lesser) sports success has been overshadowed by her taste for glitter, she constantly needs to shine on the courts as well as on the red carpet. Being the knowledgeable business woman that she is, she has created her image with her partners (TAG Heuer watches, Nike, Evian, Porsche, Head rackets and Supergoop! cosmetics), who remained faithful after the judgment of the Court for Arbitration of Sport, despite her suspension. In March 2016, Forbes estimated that she had earned close to $300 million since the beginning of her career, including “only” 36 for her tournament wins! In August 2015, for the eleventh year in a row, she was the richest female athlete on the planet.
“Queen Maria” even created in 2012 the Sugarpova candy.
Another success: more than 5 million packets have been sold in 30 countries (2015 estimate). To promote her brand, she even considered to rename it “Maria Sugarpova “.
Are you ready to resume the competition, at the end of April, at the tournament in Stuttgart?
Maria Sharapova It is fantastic to have a new goal related to the competition, to return to this environment. For one year, I set for myself the sole purpose of staying strong physically, since this makes me stronger mentally. I have never appreciated fitness so much! Before my suspension, I asked for a racket and asked for a score at the end of five minutes of exercise (laughs)!
You have remained very active over the course of your suspension. Was it not boring to you?
Sven Groeneveld, my coach, said to me: “If you spend your time thinking, this will be too frustrating and you’ll want to remain seated at home.” But I need to do work on my brain. I am returned to school during the summer and I trained at Nike, at the NBA and in an advertising agency in London. My staff wanted to be sure that I stay in shape, so my physical trainer requested a report, one of those that measure your body fat! The HORROR (it’s hilarious)! Each morning, I stand on this contraption, I take a photo and send it to him.
You were also very present on social media…
I have nothing to hide. I am always the same, I always defend the same principles.
What has changed is my understanding of what I represent for people. So many people have told me that I am courageous and they were anxious to see me back on the courts. I was really affected.
Before, I think that I did not want this responsibility, I did not want to be an example.
Did life without tennis make you afraid?
Yes, sometimes, because I did not know how I was going to feel without this occupation, which I have had since I was a child and in the end gave me an unexpected blow. This had already been very hard at the time of my operation on the right shoulder, in 2008. My career was threatened. I feared then that it was the end. I learned something from this period: in the difficult moments, we build a lot of inner strength, even without realizing it, and then arrive at another point in life where it returns to save you. This time, being away from the courts has given me confidence: I know now that my life will be fine outside the world of tennis.
Psychologically, your suspension had to be a shock…
There has been a lot of ups and downs, for sure. During the first five or six months, I had the impression that I was spending all my time with lawyers. It was hard to live. I am not patient. And I did not control anything. I wanted to know one thing: when could I compete again? I was fighting to have an answer as soon as possible even if, from the outset, my lawyers told me that due to the judgment of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), I would not be able to compete for at least a year. It was very difficult to accept.
Did you think about retirement?
I never imagined that anyone would prevent me from ending my career as I wanted! Yes, I was going to return. But I passed through several phases. The first two months, I suffered an injury to my left wrist that was more serious than expected. Whatever the length of my suspension, I was therefore not going to be able to resume competition. It has helped me to see that I was not physically fit. I also spent a lot of time on the court to train, and when I play, I cannot think of anything else. This has been like therapy each day.
Have you thought that maybe you were suspended to make an example, in the framework of the fight against doping?
Maria Sharapova Obviously that’s what I thought! But I cannot say that it has made my case an example, because I do not know about that. And I do not want to believe it yet. Will we know the truth about this one day? No. It’s the way it goes… If I begin by “and if”, “perhaps”, “how”, this will probably be much more difficult to live with.
The best thing to do is just turn the page.
How have you dealt with being regarded as a cheater?
I have faced the media very often in my life, since I was very young. Therefore, as usual, my first reaction was to protect me. I have never felt the blow of being criticized or judged severely. I have always faced the words or the opinions of others knowing that time will put it all behind me. This will make the headlines, people will talk about them, and then? This is not real life. What I lived, that was real life! And it has taken a lot of guts and determination to get me through. In the end, my actions count more than these words.
Even those very harsh words said against you by the other players?
When my case was not clear, when it was still a little unknown, everyone had the right to judge me. But now that I have been absolved by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which is neutral, now that there are paragraphs 100 and 101 (editor’s note: where judges have ruled that she did not have the intention to cheat), I say stop. If players continue, despite this, to malign me, then this is not fair.
“Cheater”, “doped up”: the words are strong.
You must have felt some sort of blow…
There have been days where I was annoyed. But I was especially sad about the situation, because I would have been able to avoid it. It is easier to tackle someone who is on the ground than a person who is on top. I have never had the desire to go hide in a corner in the meantime until it went away. I have worked too hard, sacrificed too many things to this sport.
Some of your rivals have said that this case discredited all that you have accomplished.
It is stupid, ridiculous, really! It does not correspond to the facts that have been presented. But if it helps them to feel better… I am not going to be able to make them change their opinion, then I will not waste my time trying to.
It is said that Svetlana Kuznetsova, Rafael Nadal, Grigor Dimitrov or Novak Djokovic are part of those who have supported you.
Yes, all those that you quote have done so.
You have always said that you are not on the circuit to make friends. There is a risk that may make you pay in the locker room, right?
It’s a question of honesty. I have enough friends in my life. Playing in tournaments is like going to the office. My goal is to be professional, do my job and be respected. This does not involve speaking with the girls of their new car, their shopping spree, or their new boyfriend.
All of the above, I do it with my friends. I arrive on time, I come to the interviews and I am real.
It is the best that I can do.
You have been invited to the tournaments of Stuttgart, Madrid, and Rome, and hope to be invited to Roland Garros, which is the only way for you today to participate. How do you respond to those who take it personally? Some people think that you should earn your return…
But whatever happens, I am going to have to earn my return! I have lost my ranking. I am at the bottom of the ladder. Invitation or not, I will have to work to regain what I lost. Stuttgart would have been complete without Maria Sharapova because it is one of the best tournaments in the world. Now, is it good to have my name on the table while I am ambassador under contract with Porsche (editor’s note: the major sponsor of the tournament of Stuttgart)? Certainly. But Madrid and Rome have all the best players in the world and they are well without me. The organizers of these tournaments invite me because they know me and respect me.
Bernard Giudicelli, the President of the FFT, said that it would be a bad example to invite you to Roland Garros, despite your two titles.
I understand that there is a new President of the French Tennis Federation. I made a mistake, but my penalty was this suspension: I have served my term, so why beat dead a horse now?
Is there a reason to continue to punish me?
I don’t think so. Especially if one reads the decision of the Court of Arbitration for Sport: after paragraphs 100 and 101, what else remains?
Among the lessons to be learned, have you changed your medical system?
Yes, now I have a full-time doctor, someone who will monitor all my injuries, MRI’s, blood samples, doping tests. My biggest mistake was to trade a doctor for a nutritionist. It is laughable when you think of it: the person who is suspended didn’t even have a doctor, but a nutritionist (laughs)!
Have you been relieved to not see your business collapse?
I had so many other things to deal with, including the fact that perhaps I would never be able to play again, so at the beginning it was not the most important thing for me. The brands with which I work have remained with me for ten years: they know who I really am. I have never doubted these people.
But your image has been tarnished. Can you rebuild it?
I do not recall having ever chosen the easy solution to solve my problems. This was not the road to my success. Everything that I had, I worked to obtain, each title, each network, each dollar. Nothing was served to me on a platter.
Finally, how do you envision your return?
When one has been a champion, to return is the only goal. But this will be difficult after a long absence. I chose to put myself at risk by accepting the sequence of tournaments of Stuttgart, Madrid, and Rome. I have always had the impression that I am an artist, a performer: the tennis court is my stage. I walk from the locker room in the corridor or the tunnel, they bring down the curtain, and there I am. Me, before another person. I love it and that’s what I think. What I feel when I play tennis, this desire to improve, to once again become a champion, that’s what fuels me as we speak.