WSJ: Maria Sharapova Returns Home to Sochi

WSJ: Maria Sharapova Returns Home to Sochi

By Betsy McKay

The Winter Olympics aren’t a likely venue for Maria Sharapova, but the tennis star is in her former hometown this month as a cultural ambassador for NBC during the Games.

“My job is to showcase our city,” Sharapova says, describing TV segments that have explored Sochi’s mix of cuisines, its circus, and other attractions — including a tennis court where she once played.

Sharapova was born in Siberia, but moved as a young child from the coldest part of Russia to the warmest — one with palm trees, just like Florida, where she next moved at the age of 7.

The 26 year-old four-time Grand Slam champion and Olympic silver medalist still visits her grandparents and other extended family members who live in Sochi.

She wants visitors to recognize Sochi for its beauty and history, not its unfinished hotel rooms. “If rooms not having light bulbs and gyms not open are the only problems, then that’s a huge success” for these Olympics, she says.

That’s because she knows how far Sochi has come. “Sochi had no infrastructure,” she says. She recalls roads in her childhood that were only a lane and a half wide.

But it was also one of the most desirable spots in the country, a paradise destination for workers from the north who would flock to the city to relax in its warmth and swim in the Black Sea. “I remember waterfalls, mountains, and the shore,” she says.

She last saw Sochi about a year ago on a family visit. Tunnels were closed, roads were blocked, and stadiums were far from finished, she says. “It raised a lot of questions,” she says.

She says she’s amazed at how much has been done since then. She says she’ll cheer especially for competitors from her home country, but “I have such admiration for all the athletes.”