Vogue: Maria Sharapova’s Unstoppable May Just Be the Best Part of Her Comeback Tour
by JULIA FELSENTHAL
In the epigraph to her new book, Unstoppable: My Life So Far, Maria Sharapova quotes Nelson Mandela, an avid tennis fan who was surely not referring to the sport when he said, “Do not judge me by my successes. Judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”
By now, even the most casual tennis fan knows the story of Sharapova’s greatest misstep. In March 2016, the athlete, then 28, held a press conference to get out in front of news that she had tested positive for Meldonium, a Latvian drug doled out with Aspirin-like frequency throughout Eastern Europe, where it is used to treat a heart condition called ischemia. The World Anti-Doping Agency had newly added the supplement to its list of banned substances, expressing concerns about Meldonium’s possible ancillary performance-enhancing benefits—particularly, perhaps, given its popularity with athletes from Russia, where a shockingly robust, state-sponsored doping operation had just come to light. Sharapova was prescribed Meldonium by a family doctor in 2006 and had been taking it ever since. She hadn’t bothered to read the fine print in an email alerting her to the drug’s changed status. Then, as she writes in the first line of the prologue to Unstoppable, “at some point toward the end of the 2016 Australian Open, a nurse asked me to pee in a cup.” The rest is history.
Sharapova’s negligence would cost her: She initially faced a two-year suspension from competition, later commuted to 15 months after WADA conceded that, though in violation of the rules, she had not intentionally broken them. That mandatory hiatus ended this spring, and Sharapova, now 30, got up, dusted herself off, and rejoined the tennis tour in April.
Finding her footing has been a slow process. In May, the powers that be at the French Open denied the once-top-ranked player a wild card slot. (Justifying the decision, French Tennis Federation president Bernard Guidicelli struck a rather sanctimonious tone: “It is up to Maria day after day, tournament after tournament, to find alone the strength she needs to win the big titles without owing anything to anyone.”) In June, she had to pull out of a Wimbledon qualifying match after sustaining a thigh injury. In August, to criticism from players like Caroline Wozniacki, Sharapova was granted a wild card spot to compete in the U.S. Open—a major comeback opportunity, particularly given that her then–very pregnant rival Serena Williams, the victor in 19 of their 21 head-to-head bouts, would not be in attendance—only to be knocked out in the fourth round by Anastasija Sevastova.
It’s been some time now since Maria Sharapova made news for something positive, though Unstoppable may change that. Penned with the help of journalist Rich Cohen, Sharapova’s book is an illuminating account of, as the subtitle has it, her life so far. The memoir begins and ends with its author’s experience of the doping debacle, and though most of these chapters concern life before her suspension, the incident haunts her book: Unstoppable is about everything that made Sharapova the kind of unflappable competitor who wouldn’t let a 15-month service interruption, or the very vocal disapproval of her peers, come between her and her ambition. This is the bildungsroman of a controversial champion, a portrait of the athlete as an uncommonly driven young woman.
It’s also a Horatio Alger–worthy tale of rags to riches, with a slightly nihilistic Russian twist. “This is a story about sacrifice, what you have to give up,” the athlete writes. “But it’s also just the story of a girl and her father and their crazy adventure.” Unstoppable takes Sharapova from in utero (her parents had her just after fleeing Gomel, Belarus, in the aftermath of an explosion at the nuclear plant in nearby Chernobyl) to the Black Sea resort town of Sochi, Russia, where the family settled after a stop in Siberia, and where Maria took up tennis as a knob-kneed kindergartener with a too-big racquet and an unusual knack for hitting, to Florida, where her 28-year-old father, Yuri, with $700 in his pocket, brought her at age 6 to seek their fortune, leaving Maria’s mother, Yelena, behind in the collapsing Soviet Union (she would eventually follow, several years later).
In America, the young athlete bounced from tennis academy to tennis academy (she calls it “tennis prison”) as her father, a non-English speaker with no connections in the States, struggled to find work, shelter, and, most pressingly, court time for his daughter. (There’s an ever-urgent sense that, for an ambitious young player, each day of non-practice can be the difference between success and failure.) They first eagerly, then warily, sought out brand-name coaches who could help Sharapova realize her potential. At Nick Bolletieri’s famed school, Sharapova trained in Anna Kournikova’s shadow and dressed in the older Russian’s hand-me-downs—until, rumor has it, Kournikova’s mother jealously convinced the coach that Yuri had kidnapped Maria. Father and daughter were cast out, though they would later be invited back. In the meantime, at another of these tennis factories, a vulture-like guru named Sekou Bangoura took them in, then withheld Yuri’s travel documents as a means of controlling his daughter, and proffered a contract to coach Maria that would have been tantamount to tennis slavery.
Set apart from her peers by circumstance, talent, and her preternaturally intense focus—“That was my gift. Not strength or speed. Stamina. I never got bored. Whatever I was doing, I could keep doing it forever”—Sharapova describes a lonely childhood. It was made palatable by her affection for her father—“it all just seemed like an adventure, a fairy tale,” she writes of those early years—and by her no-nonsense, immigrant attitude toward work. “You had an air about you,” remembers Bolletieri.
“This is business, and you are in my way.” She describes, at 11, signing a sponsorship contract with Nike: “For the first time, I sort of understood what it was all about. Tennis is a sport, but it’s not just a sport. It’s a passion, but it’s not just a passion. It’s a business. It’s money. It’s stability for my family. I got it now. You might think this would upset or disillusion me, but the opposite was true. I finally knew why I was doing what I was doing. I finally understood the stakes. It finally made sense. From that moment, my task became clear—just go out there and win.”
That mercenary attitude toward money—it’s not for nothing that, for 11 years, Sharapova was the highest-paid female athlete in the world—has won her more than her fair share of detractors. Much has been made over the years of Sharapova’s “unlikeability.” At this point, in fact, disliking her, or at least writing about those who do, is something of a sport in and of itself (see: “Why Everyone In Tennis Hates Maria Sharapova” or “Maria Sharapova Isn’t Missed at Wimbledon Because She Is ‘Totally Unlikeable’ ”).
In a piece last spring for Raquet magazine and Longreads, Sarah Nicole Prickett sketched out the particular contours of Sharapova’s very popular unpopularity, linking the hate to the star’s keen sense of her own marketability (Prickett compares her in this respect to Taylor Swift and Ivanka Trump). Unstoppable doesn’t refute that impression, but it does reveal something of why Sharapova is who she is. The book may not make her more likeable—why, again, do we need her to be?—but it does make her a hell of a lot more knowable.
Sharapova’s a careful observer, and Unstoppable is full of astute psychological insights. Tennis, she observes, is both “my wound, and the salve for my wound.” Her unusual composure on the court derives from those motherless years: “If you don’t have a mother to cry to, you don’t cry. You just hang in there, knowing that eventually things will change—that the pain will subside, that the screw will turn.” Of her oft-criticized failure to make friends on the circuit: “If I like you, I’ll have a harder time putting you away. I don’t believe I’m the only player who feels this way, but I am one of the few who will admit it.” She writes of her much-scrutinized closeness to her father: “At times, I could not tell his dreams from my own. Or his dreams became my dreams.” She reveals of Serena Williams: “She’s never forgiven me,” either for beating her, against all odds, in the Wimbledon final in 2004, or for eavesdropping on Williams’s private display of grief afterward in their shared locker room. One of the most affecting scenes in the book reveals its author, age 12 or 13, hiding out in a woodshed to watch the Williams sisters at practice on a rare visit to Bollettieri’s. “I’d never put myself in the position of worshipping them, looking up, being a fan.” Instead, she huddled in a nearby outbuilding, peering through a knothole, “just me alone, in the dark, seeing the next 20 years of my life.”
That attention to optics, to the nuance of perception, is important. Tennis is a game that’s equal parts head and body, performance and instinct. Sharapova has always understood this. Even when she writes about life off the court, every revelation feels calculated. There’s a matter-of-factness to her tone; this is less catharsis than analysis of the very clever ways that the author has turned her deficits into her advantages. She pays close attention to the power differentials that are the subtext for any match. There is no such thing as stasis in tennis: “Everyone is always arriving or going away.” So while her title may suggest otherwise, Unstoppable serves as a reminder of why Maria Sharapova is less superhero than underdog. And that may be another crafty bit of branding: “It’s exciting when a kid wins on the biggest stage,” she writes about coming back from shoulder surgery to triumph at the 2012 French Open, a victory that clinched her career Grand Slam. Her words could just as well apply to whatever accomplishments may yet loom in her future. “That’s new life, that’s spring. But how much sweeter when a player who once had everything loses it all, and then, miraculously, gets it all back.”