The Players Tribune: Into the Unknown
Before my first match back from suspension, it seemed like everyone in my life only wanted to know one thing: How I was going to feel. Whether it was my friends, or my family, or even the limited amount of press that I did leading up to the event, this was the question I’d get asked more than any other: Maria, how are you going to feel?
And my answer would always be the same: I have no clue.
It was the honest truth. I just … had no clue! Was I going to feel nervous? Excited? Confident? Cautious? Happy? Sad? Loved? Hated? Relieved? Scared? On one hand, it’s such a simple idea — describing, or even predicting, a feeling. It’s such a simple question. But on the other hand … it felt so unknowable. It felt like all of the emotions in the world, every single one of them, might be on the table that night in Stuttgart — when I stepped back onto the court after 15 months away from the game.
And I think at first my instinct was to prepare for all of them. At first, I think, it was like, O.K. — how will I react if I feel like this? How will I react if I feel like that? And how will I react if I feel like this, this, and that? And so on. And why not, you know? After all, that’s my job — to prepare for every match, and to train myself to perform at my best.
But pretty soon, I think I realized that any preparation like that would be futile. That this was just … one of those things. And that no matter how hard I tried, there simply wouldn’t be any way to train for what was to come. I could try to guess, I could try to imagine, I could try to play every scenario out in my head. But in the end, there was just no way to know. I realized that I didn’t have a choice: I was just going to have to step out onto that court, and take a deep breath, and have no clue.
I was going to have to walk out into the unknown.
My relationship with uncertainty has always been a complicated one.
As a tennis player — and I’m sure this goes for many other jobs — I find that I’m constantly at the center of this battle, this push and pull, of certainty vs. uncertainty in my world. There are the certainties of routine, of course: nonstop gym, nonstop practice, nonstop travel, nonstop sleeping in a bed away from home, nonstop lonely thirty-minute car rides to the courts while listening to random international music, nonstop calendar that seems to loop back in on itself before you can blink.
But there are also, in this weird way, these uncertainties of routine: Every tournament has its own balls. Every tournament has a different surface. Every day there’s a new opponent. Every day has its own weather conditions. How do you prepare for each of those? Did you have a press conference? How did that go? When’s your next match? Against who? What’s your next tournament? Where are you with your current goals? And so on.
And after 15 years of those routines, after 15 years of those certainties and uncertainties both — you know, what can I say? It’s been a long freaking time. It really is just the strangest feeling: The clock, the schedule, the calendar — how it never stops. And yet, how it always feels like it’s starting back at zero.
Even this particular moment, preparing for my first match back after 15 months, it felt like that. Part of me felt like I had been through this before: I’d had my shoulder surgery, in ’08, and done most of the same long-term training; from that experience alone, I was pretty certain I could take extended time off and get my level back.
But another part of me knew there was something unique about this particular time off. There is something about a suspension — the judgments, and the scrutiny, and the emotional toll — that is just hard to compare to anything else … and almost impossible to have any certainty about, until you’ve been through it. Those 15 months made it clear to me that there were two levels I had to get back to: physical, yes, but also mental.
There was the known and there was the unknown.
There was coming back — and then there was believing it.
The night before my return match, in April, I was talking with my mom.
She usually travels with me, but never goes to matches. Seriously — my mom’s probably been to like three matches in 10 years. And not even in a bad way. I just think the tournament vibes, the player’s lounges, the watching from the stands, and all of that … it’s not her scene. (Moms get to make their own rules.) But anyway, the night before the match, my mom and I were just sort of casually talking — you know, about who knows what, in the way that moms and daughters do. And as we were winding down, and I was about to head back to my hotel room for the night … well, I just asked her, pretty much out of the blue: “Mom — would you like to come tomorrow?”
I’m not sure what got into me. It was one of those things that you don’t even fully know you’re saying until you’ve started saying it, and that you don’t even totally think through until you’ve finished.
My mom gave it a few seconds of thought. And then she looked at me, and she said, “You know what? Yeah. Yeah, I would.”
And I was like, “O.K.!”
It was this little moment, this little thing, barely a conversation — but as soon as it happened, I knew it meant so much me. I think I already knew how different this match would be from any other I’d ever played. And instead of running and hiding from that, I think a part of me decided to almost … confront it head-on. Like, Yes, O.K. — this match will be different. But at least in one way, now, it will be different on terms of my own.
I said goodnight to my mom, and told her I’d see her tomorrow.
I slept more soundly that night than I had in years.
I’m going to admit something to you now: I like having a little mystique.
I’ve never been someone who wants to be known by everyone, or loved by everyone, or even understood by everyone. Sometimes I wonder, self-consciously, if this dates me — if there’s something old-school about that. One thing I’ve noticed recently, in the locker room, is how almost every player on tour has the exact same post-match habit: Walk off the court, head into the locker room, and then immediately — I mean, literally before they’ve even changed their clothes or taken a shower — grab their phone, log on to Twitter, and then search through their mentions.
It’s something I began to notice a few years ago, and it just really struck me. Here is this … it’s like an Opinion Machine, or a Validation Machine, and everyone seems consumed by it. And who knows — maybe I’m missing out. Maybe it’s wonderful. But that’s just never been my way.
Do I want people to be tweeting about me, or talking about me, or caring about me, or coming to see me play? Of course. I won’t be disingenuous: I’ve worked hard to get to where I am. And the spotlight — that’s just part of where I’ve gotten to. I always want to be playing in big-time matches, and I know that that will always come with big-time attention. I’ve never wanted a life that plays out on court 18. Center court, for me, is where I feel at home. But at the same time, there is a difference between attention and validation. And that is where I have always felt a bit different. I don’t need to know what people are saying about me. Knowing that they’re saying it, I suppose, has always been enough.
One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that there is sometimes an overlap between people seeing you as having a mystique … and people seeing you as being invulnerable. And that’s something I’ve been thinking about more and more lately. Because the truth is, I feel vulnerable all the time — no different from any other person. And the walls I’ve built around myself … they aren’t nearly as impenetrable as people think. Things still get through, and still make me feel certain ways.
And I mean that from a couple of different perspectives.
One perspective is that, yes — I’m not oblivious. I’m aware of what many of my peers have said about me, and how critical of me some of them have been in the press. If you’re a human being with a normal, beating heart, you know … I don’t think that sort of thing will ever fully be possible to ignore. And I don’t think it will ever not be weird or hurtful to go through.
But at the same time … I’ve always tried to keep a generous attitude toward critics in general — whoever they are, and whenever they’ve been there. I’ve never wanted to respond to the people trashing me by trashing them back; that’s always been important to me. I’ve always wanted to respond by showing grace — something I learned from my mom, one of the most graceful and elegant people I know. I’ve always wanted to face my critics by simply taking the high road. And by showing them, by showing everyone, that taking the high road is a choice.
Which isn’t to say it’s an easy choice. Trust me — easy would be to do the opposite. It would be so easy for me to walk into a press conference, and sit down, and just take those questions about the things my peers have said about me as they come — to critique, and bash, and jab back, and get in the mud. And the competitor in me … I mean, good grief: A lot of people don’t know this about me, but I’m a boxing obsessive. Ever since I was a little girl, it’s the other sport besides tennis that I’ve most been fascinated by. I would watch boxing on TV. I would box for cardio training. And my favorite part would always be the same: the way that you enter the ring. It’s always felt so calm, and yet so intense. Rhythmic and majestic. And I would think to myself, in these press conferences — just, like, how easy it would be for me to imagine that I was dipping and gliding, under and through those ropes, and stepping into the ring to spar. To dance around, get a few jabs in, maybe land a few combinations and then call it a day.
But I simply have no interest in that. Tennis — that’s where the fighter in me goes. I made that decision as a young girl, and I’ve stuck with it ever since. And the off-court negativity … it’s just not something that I have in me. It’s tricky to explain. And it’s even trickier to understand; I get that. It’s so internal. But in the end, in my heart, I honestly do have so much respect and admiration for everyone on tour — including my critics.
And eventually I hope they’ll change their minds, and have the same for me.
But there is also another perspective of vulnerability that I’ve learned a lot about over these past several months — that has nothing to do with criticism, and nothing to do with my peers.
It has to do with my fans.
Opening up to my fans, and even to the idea of fandom, is not something that has always come naturally for me. It’s not that I haven’t appreciated my fans — completely the opposite, of course. I cherish my fans, and I know how essential they’ve been to my success. I know all of that.
But there’s knowing … and then there’s knowing.
And I hope you won’t hold it against me when I say that it wasn’t until I had this time off, and then came back, that I think I really began to understand just what my fan base means to me — not only as an idea, but on a deeper level. On a human level.
And when I say “a human level,” I mean — take a concept like loyalty. To me, loyalty is one of the most powerful characteristics there is. When it comes to relationships, loyalty can be everything. And when you go through adversity, I think it’s fair to say: That’s often when you find out how loyal people are. There are a lot of people who are with you when you’re on top — but then will turn on you pretty quickly when circumstances change. And it’s funny, because you think of this more, maybe, in terms of friendships, or business partnerships, or that sort of thing. But the people whose loyalty I’ve been most moved by over these last two years, I have to be honest — it’s been my fans.
After the news broke … they stuck with me. After the ruling … they stuck with me. During the suspension … they stuck with me. And when I got back to the court….
I mean, I’ll never forget it.
I’m usually someone who likes to get to tournaments early. But in my first tournament back, I caught a bit of bad luck: Because my suspension ended on the same day as my first-round match, I wasn’t able to practice on-site until the very day of. Which meant that my first official practice — on the indoor center court — wouldn’t be until just hours before my match. Which meant that there was going to be a lot of press at my practice that morning. Which meant that it was going to be … pretty intense.
And it was fine. It was more press around one court for a practice than I think I had ever seen in my life … but the practice itself went fine. At the same time, though, there was something almost … adversarial about it, you know? Like, the entire situation — it was all just a little tense, a little performative. And it was something that was hard to find much joy in.
But then later that afternoon, I went out onto one of the smaller practice courts — to stay loose before my match and hit a few balls. Nothing more than a quick 25-minute session, no big deal. But when I got there … I don’t even know what to say. It was like, this moment … this emotional release, that I can’t really explain. Very quickly, when they saw me, a bunch of my fans gathered around the court to watch the practice. And they had all these Russian flags … and these WELCOME BACK, MARIA signs that they had made … and they were just clapping, and yelling, and cheering for me, the whole while.
I’m usually a laser beam of focus during practice, especially so close to a match — but in that moment, I have to admit, I kind of lost it a little. Just the idea of these fans … choosing me, out of all the players … and then sticking with me, after all that’s happened … and then taking the time to make these signs … and then traveling here, coming here, to this one practice court … and then supporting me, and letting me know they were there. Suddenly I was so aware of these signs, in a way that I’d just never been before. I was hitting balls on the court — but in my head, all I was doing was imagining these girls: at home, finding the right glue, and the right glitter, and the right markers, and deciding on the exact right thing to say. And doing all of that for me. And I hope I’m explaining this right, but it was suddenly just this overwhelming thing. It was incredibly moving for me. It was like this reminder — after that first practice, in front of all those cameras — of who it is that I truly play this game for.
And now I feel like it’s my turn, finally, to pay them back. Because if there’s anything that I most would like to accomplish during the next phase of my career, I think it’s this: being a player and a person worth cheering for — for this group of fans who have been so loyal to me.
And who would cheer for me no matter what.
It’s funny how things change.
I think people probably have this idea of me, where, maybe I’m this person who has everything. And that, because of this — maybe it would take a lot to make me happy.
But I’ll tell you of this recent moment in my life, a very precise moment, when I felt truly content.
It was a couple of months ago, on a morning in mid-May. I was playing the Italian Open, and had won my first-round match in straight sets. This was my third tournament back, and I was starting to feel like I was slowly regaining my confidence. In retrospect, maybe it was a mistake to play three tournaments in a row after having played none for 15 months. (O.K., no “maybe” — in retrospect, it’s like, Come on, Maria, what were you thinking?) But I was just so excited to be back. Have you ever stayed up all night, just because you’re doing something fun, and you don’t want the night to end? That’s almost how I felt about playing three tournaments in a row — like my body would be able to keep up on the excitement alone. And after two sets in Rome, anyway, I was feeling great.
My second-round match was a night match — prime-time, Italian style: 7:30 p.m. And so I got to enjoy my morning a little. I woke up a little later than usual, and ate breakfast in my hotel room. My room had this gorgeous view, from a hill overlooking the city. The Vatican, the Colosseum … right there … I mean, almost like you could touch them. The weather was beautiful, May in Italy. The birds were chirping. And to top it off: A decision was scheduled to come down at any minute on my wild-card status for the French Open — which I felt really good about.
Maybe I’m making this moment sound better than it actually was — because to tell you the truth, it wasn’t that uncommon for a morning on tour. You wake up in a foreign city, you eat breakfast, and then you get ready for practice. Big deal. But on this day, even something nearing routine — it really did feel special. Suddenly … it didn’t feel like I had been doing this for 15 years. Instead, in this weird way — it almost felt like I was experiencing this part of my life, all over again, for the first time. Thrilled to be in a hotel; proud to be in the second round; filled with anticipation about a wild card — it was a set of emotions that I hadn’t exactly felt in a while.
But I just remember waking up that morning … and being so happy about it all. Feeling like this place that I was in, you know — it was an O.K. place to be.
And then, of course, it all came crashing down. By the time that day had ended: I had lost my match (after having to retire due to injury); I was out of Rome; I was out of the French Open; and, though I didn’t know it at the time, I was out of Wimbledon as well. In fact, the only thing that I was in by the end of the day was an MRI machine — about to find out that I had a grade 3 tear in my hip muscle. Funny how life works, right? If the birds were still chirping, I couldn’t hear them.
And I won’t lie to you: I was pretty down after all that. It seemed so cruel, after those 15 long months away from the game, to have finally started to feel like I was taking a step forward — only to be forced to take two steps back. To now have to skip the French and Wimbledon, both, for the second year in a row … to now have to come off tour again … it seemed like someone was playing a mean trick on me. I’m sure there are critics of mine, reading this now, and thinking, you know, Karma. And if they want to think that, then they’re entitled. But it sure didn’t feel that way at the time. It sure didn’t feel like karma on that night, in that pain, in that MRI machine. On that night … I just wanted to play. It just felt bad.
And it felt bad for a while.
But then eventually, I think, it also felt good. Not the injury, of course; but what came after. And what came after is that I rediscovered — or maybe just reconfirmed — something about myself: That feeling of uncertainty around every corner? That feeling of having to walk out … over and over … into the complete unknown? I love that feeling.
I realized that, as much as I yearned while I was gone for the comfort and routine of my old life as a tennis player — what I yearned for even more was the discomfort, and the lack of routine. I yearned for the feeling that tennis gives you, of … it’s hard for me here to think of just the right phrase. Maybe it’s tough love. How tennis will isolate you, and exhaust you, and wear you down, and test your resolve, in some of the most brutal ways possible. But if you can just make it through … then it will also reward you in ways that are beyond compare.
And though these last two years have been tougher — so much tougher — than I ever could have anticipated … my passion for the game has never wavered. If anything, it’s only grown stronger.
I’m getting ready for the North American hardcourt season now, one of my favorites. I’ll play Stanford, then Toronto — and I’m going to give it everything I have. And then I guess we’ll see what happens to my summer from there. I’m sure I’ll win some, and I’ll lose some. I’m sure my dozens of critics will show up, and so will my thousands of fans. But ultimately, who knows? When it comes to tennis, good or bad — there’s really only one thing that I know for certain.
I’ve missed it.
Maria Sharapova’s memoir, Unstoppable, will be released September 12.