April 19, 1987 • Nyagan, Siberia, Soviet Union
In the summer of 2004, seventeen-year-old Maria Sharapova became the first Russian player to win Wimbledon, the prestigious tennis event that takes place every summer in London, England. Wimbledon is one of the four Grand Slam events in tennis, along with the U.S., French, and Australian Open tournaments, and winners of these contests have triumphed over the best players in the world. Sharapova, who had spent much of her life in Florida at a renowned tennis academy, was the third youngest champion in Wimbledon history, and her women's singles Wimbledon title came with a $1 million prize purse. Afterward, she was signed to a number of product endorsement deals. By the summer of 2005, she had won a spot on Forbes magazine's Celebrity 100 list as the highest paid female athlete in the world.
Says good-bye to mother
Born on April 19, 1987, Sharapova is the daughter of Yuri and Yelena Sharapova. Her father worked in the construction industry, and both parents were avid athletes. They had met in Gomel, a city in the Ukraine that was near the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, the site of the world's worst nuclear accident in April 1986, just a year before Sharapova was born. When her mother became pregnant, she and Yuri decided to move east to escape the potentially damaging radioactive effects of the accident. They settled in Nyagan, Siberia, where Sharapova was born. Yuri found work in the Siberian oilfields, but the climate was too cold for them. They saved their money for four years and finally were able to move to Sochi, a pleasant resort town on the Black Sea in the south of Russia.
"Tennis obviously is going to make my money at this point, and that's what I've been practicing for. But it's not my life."
Sharapova's parents liked to play tennis, and they gave her a racket as a toddler and began teaching her how to hit the ball. Because they could not afford a genuine child-size racket, they cut off the handle of an adult one for her to master instead. She proved a quick learner, and when she was six years old they traveled to Moscow for a youth tennis clinic. One of the celebrity athletes at the event was Czech-born Martina Navratilova (1956–), a nine-time women's singles winner at Wimbledon. Navratilova was impressed by Sharapova's skills and suggested to the parents that they contact the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Florida. This was a tennis-focused boarding school that had trained several future champions, including Andre Agassi (1970–), Pete Sampras (1971–), and Monica Seles (1973–).
The Sharapovas decided to go to Florida and try to get Maria enrolled there. But only Yuri could get a visa (a document permitting a foreign citizen to legally enter the country) to travel to the United States, and so Yelena stayed behind in Sochi and waited for her visa application to be approved. They also needed money for the trip and had to borrow several hundred dollars from Yuri and Yelena's parents. This was an enormous sum for her parents, partly because Russia was in a state of financial chaos at the time, and average working families like hers struggled to obtain the basic necessities of life in the new, non-Communist era in which the state did not generously provide jobs, housing, and healthcare for all citizens. "My parents weren't stupid," Sharapova told Peter Kafka in Forbes. "The conditions in Russia weren't the best for tennis."
In 1994 Sharapova and her father arrived at the Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, but they were told that admission to the school was by invitation only, and that the seven-year-old girl was too young to enter anyway. They remained in Florida, and a coach was found for her while her father worked as a waiter and took odd jobs to support them. She learned English in just four months, and her tennis skills steadily improved. At the age of nine, she and her father went back to the Bollettieri Academy, and she proved herself so well on a tryout that she was given a full scholarship to the $46,000-a-year school. The Academy was part of the International Management Group (IMG), a talent agency that handled the careers of entertainers and athletes, and its scouts likely recognized Sharapova's potential for future stardom.
Around this same time, Yelena Sharapova finally received her visa and was able to join her husband and daughter, ending a two-year separation. But when Sharapova entered the Bollettieri Academy, she had to live in its boarding school. She later hinted in interviews that it was a tough, competitive atmosphere, and she was sometimes the target of bullying by the older girls. Her days included regular academic classes and as many as six hours a day on the tennis courts in practice sessions. At the age of eleven, she signed on with coach Robert Lansdorp, who had guided the careers of Sampras as well as Tracy Austin (1962–), a two-time U.S. Open winner, and Lindsay Davenport (1976–), who won three Grand Slam events between 1998 and 2000. Sharapova also signed with IMG around this time, and this paved the way for her first deal with Nike, the athletic shoe and clothing maker.
Perhaps the World's Poshest Sporting Event
Maria Sharapova's stunning victory over Serena Williams (1981–) at Wimbledon in 2004 made the Russian-born player the third youngest winner in the history of the tournament. Wimbledon, watched by millions of television viewers all over the world, is considered one of the world's most prestigious sporting events. Officially, the Grand Slam event is known as "The Championships, Wimbledon," and is held annually in the town of Wimbledon, a part of the Greater London metropolitan area.
The first Wimbledon tennis championship was held in the summer of 1877, and the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club was its sponsor. The event included only men's singles, though they were known for many years as "gentlemen's" singles. Ladies' singles and gentlemen's doubles events were added in 1884.
The present rye-grass courts of Wimbledon, located off Church Road, have been host to the annual event since 1922. There are nineteen courts in all, with Centre Court hosting the finals matches. But the grass surface has proved an extremely difficult one for some of the world's top-ranked players, because the ball's bounce is not as high as on a clay court. Players who adopt the serve-and-volley technique—in which they make their serve, then rush toward the net to hit the next shot as a volley—tend to fare better on grass courts.
Wimbledon still has many quaint English traditions. All umpires, officials, and court associates wear uniforms of the official Wimbledon colors, green and purple. The dress code for players is a strict one, with tennis whites strongly suggested, and female players are still referred to as "Miss" or "Mrs." in official announcements. Until 2003, all Centre Court players had to bow or curtsy toward the Royal Box, where members of the Royal Family watch the game, when they came onto the court. Now they are expected to do so only if the Queen or the Prince of Wales is in the Royal Box that day. Rain delays, common to the English summer, often delay matches for hours or even days. Strawberries and cream are the unofficial snack food of the event.
Members of the British royal family are not the only famous faces in the Wimbledon crowd. Movie stars, heads of state, and celebrity athletes from other sports can also be spotted. The most photographed couple in 2005 were film stars Jude Law (1972–) and his fiancée, Sienna Miller (1981–).
Sharapova won her first junior championship title at the age of thirteen. Two years later, she made it to the finals of the Australian Open Junior championship, which was her best ranking in tennis to date, and entered her first adult professional tournament in Tokyo, Japan, in September 2003. In the finals of that event, she defeated Aniko Kapros (1983–) of Hungary. A month later, she won an event in Quebec City, Canada, and in June 2004 beat Tatiana Golovin (1988–), a fellow Russian player and former Bollettieri schoolmate, at a Birmingham, England tournament.
Makes tennis history
Two weeks later, Sharapova made her second appearance at Wimbledon. She had played it a year earlier, in 2003, but lost in an early round to Svetlana Kuznetsova (1985–), another emerging Russian player. When Sharapova began at Wimbledon in 2004, she was "seeded," or ranked by the Wimbledon executive committee, as thirteenth among women players in the world. This meant that there were twelve other players with more wins, and more experience on the court, but she steadily advanced through the quarterfinals and semifinals. She became the first Russian tennis player to reach a Wimbledon final since 1974, when a woman named Olga Morosova did so.
Of the four Grand Slam events, the Wimbledon tournament is the only one that is played on a grass court, not a clay one. It seemed to give Sharapova an advantage, noted New York Times writer Christopher Clarey. "Sharapova's big game is ideally suited to grass," Clarey asserted. "She hits relatively flat, favors slice serves over high-kicking topspin serves and clearly enjoys moving on a surface that leaves many players frustrated." In the women's singles finals, Sharapova beat two-time Wimbledon champion Serena Williams (1981–). At seventeen years and two months, Sharapova became the third youngest winner in the history of Wimbledon, which dated back to 1877. At the post-tournament press conference, she said that "it's always been my dream to come here and to win," the New York Times report quoted her as saying, "but it was never in my mind that I would do it this year."
Sharapova became an instant international celebrity. Sportswriters announced that she could be the next major women's star in tennis, and her win was notable for what some believed to be the end of an era for the Williams sisters, Serena, and her equally talented sister Venus (1980–): when Sharapova beat Serena at Wimbledon, it marked the first time since 1999 that neither Williams sister was holding a Grand Slam singles title. Sports Illustrated put Sharapova on its July 19 cover, and a week later featured a lengthy article on her rise to the top of her game. Writer L. Jon Wertheim called her "ebullient, bilingual and hyperconfident—not to mention tall, blonde and beautiful," and asserted she "had suddenly become, as Martina Navratilova put it, 'the best thing that could have happened' to women's tennis."
Eliminated at next Grand Slam event
The U.S. Open was the next Grand Slam event in the 2004 season. This contest is held in Flushing Meadows, New York, just outside New York City. Anticipation among tennis lovers to see how Sharapova would do ran high as the event got underway. She did poorly, however, losing to Mary Pierce (1975–) in the third round. Later that year, Sharapova's game improved, and she beat Serena Williams at the season-ending Women's Tennis Association (WTA) Tour Championship.
Sharapova had spent some of the rain delays at Wimbledon studying for her high school diploma, which she earned with the help of an online curriculum program for home-schooled students. In April 2005 she celebrated her eighteenth birthday in New York City at a trendy nightclub called Hiro. The bash was paid for by cell-phone maker Motorola, with whom she had signed an endorsement deal just after her Wimbledon victory the year before. It was one of several generous contracts that Sharapova's IMG agent negotiated for her. These included a renewal of the Nike endorsement, a deal with camera-maker Canon, another with luxury-watch maker Tag Heuer, and one with personal-care products giant Colgate-Palmolive. There was even her own fragrance line in the works. The combined endorsement deals gave Sharapova an income of $18.2 million, according to Forbes magazine, which ranked her as fifty-seventh on its "Celebrity 100" list in June 2005.
Sharapova spent $2.7 million of those earnings on a 4,700-square-foot home for herself and her parents in Bradenton, Florida. She continued to train for more Grand Slam events over the winter. In early 2005, she lost in the semifinals of the Australian Open to Serena Williams, and at Stade Roland Garros, the red-clay court Paris stadium that hosts the French Open every May, she lost in the quarterfinals to Belgium's Justine Henin-Hardenne (1982–). At Wimbledon a month later, she failed to keep her title, losing in the semifinals to Venus Williams. "I don't think I played my best tennis," she told reporters at the post-game press conference. She also said that Williams had "hit a lot of hard, deep balls. She was serving consistently big."
"I'm not the new anyone"
Sharapova is often compared to Anna Kournikova (1981–), a slightly older Russian player, also an attractive blonde like Sharapova, who was hailed as the next big star when she was just sixteen years old. Kournikova also won a number of well-paying endorsement contracts early in her career but, unlike Sharapova, failed to win any major titles in tennis. Known for her romances with hockey player Sergei Federov (1969–) and pop singer Enrique Iglesias (1975–), Kournikova played her last major tennis tournament in April 2003. Serious analysts of the sport, however, note there are few similarities between the two Russian players beyond their model-like, blonde looks. Sharapova has sometimes responded to the comparisons with a sharp remark in interviews. "I'm not the new anyone and certainly not the new Kournikova," she said in a Times article during Wimbledon 2004. "I'm the new Maria Sharapova. People seem to forget that Anna isn't in the picture any more. It's Maria time now. You cannot compare us anyway. After all, she never won a single tournament."
Sharapova hopes to take her second women's singles title at Wimbledon and perhaps even a "Grand Slam"—winning Wimbledon plus the Australian, French, and U.S. Opens in the same year. No other female player has done so since German champion Steffi Graf (1969–) in 1988. Sharapova also looks forward to a career beyond tennis. She has done some modeling, is a devoted reader of fashion magazines, and has even helped design some of her court outfits with Nike. Fashion design might even be a career option when she retires from tennis, which she told Vogue writer Dodie Kazanjian she planned to do in her mid-twenties. Acting would be another option. "Nothing scares me," she told Kazanjian, "because I'm not worried about failure. You never know until you try. So if you don't try, you've failed. All I know is, I'm starving to be the best."
For More Information
Burt, Jason. "Tennis: Wimbledon 2004: Girl Who Came in from the Cold after Friday Night Fever." Independent Sunday (London, England) (July 4, 2004): p. 2.
Clarey, Christopher. "Sharapova Conquers Wimbledon." New York Times (July 4, 2004): p. SP1.
Kafka, Peter. "The Hot Shot." Forbes (July 4, 2005): p. 116.
Kazanjian, Dodie. "The New Hit Girl." Vogue (March 2005): p. 544.
Price, S.L. "Youth Movement." Sports Illustrated (July 7, 2003): p. 72.
Roberts, John. "Tennis: Wimbledon 2005: Williams Rolls Back the Years to Dethrone Golden Sharapova." Independent (London, England) (July 1, 2005): p. 72.
Wertheim, L. Jon. "A Star (Who Happens to Be a Gorgeous 6-FootBlonde with Blistering Strokes) Is Born." Sports Illustrated (July 26, 2004): p. 58.
Woolcock, Nicola, and Ashling O'Connor. "Living the Dream fromSiberia to SW19." Times (London, England) (July 3, 2004): p. 3.
Maria Sharapova (RUS). http://www.wtatour.com/players/player-profiles/PlayerBio.asp?ID=&EntityID=1&CustomerID=0&OrderID=0&ReturnURL=/&PlayerID=310137 (accessed on August 23, 2005).