Sporting Life

Maria Sharapova's career a fine mix of grit and smarts

The overall Sharapova image is a judicious blend of tough competitor, methodical athlete and savvy businesswoman.
The overall Sharapova image is a judicious blend of tough competitor, methodical athlete and savvy businesswoman.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

In Duesseldorf recently, a city where tall German blondes are an unexceptional sight, an exceptional moment occurs for a tall Russian blonde. It is 7am, she is jet-lagged, looking for anything that's open, when it happens. "We had walked by a police car which was roaming the streets and they had stopped us and came out of the car". Holding not handcuffs, only a camera.

Picture, Maria?

Sharapova laughs.

In the Voyage Room of the Fullerton Bay Hotel sits this elegant traveller and world No. 3. Outside, security; inside, serenity. Her grey dress is Victoria Beckham, her shoes are Gianvito Rossi, her mission is clear: Smile endlessly, talk sensibly, pose agreeably and then wipe everyone off the court in the WTA Finals. It will involve some shrieking. If you don't like it, she will not care.

Her grey dress is Victoria Beckham, her shoes are Gianvito Rossi, her mission is clear: Smile endlessly, talk sensibly, pose agreeably and then wipe everyone off the court.

Sharapova exudes the assuredness of a woman who is a combination of titles (35) and tags (richest woman in sport, with S$41.4 million in earnings, according to a 2015 Forbes list). But what she is never quite sure of is which part of her body is preparing to mutiny.

Her shoulder has been repaired more times than an Indian road. This year her injured leg kept her out for months. In Wuhan recently it was her arm. "I have a very good collection of MRIs," she laughs. People often compliment her tenacity, for she can turn tennis into a form of cage-fighting without contact, but it is in managing injury, in overcoming it, in finding a way back into the top 10 where she's resided for 10 of the last 12 years, that her grit lies.

"I am proud," she says "of the way I have been able to find a way. Sometimes people forget that just because you're injured it doesn't mean you're on holiday and sitting back with a margarita. You're spending actually more hours keeping yourself in shape because you lose a lot of muscle tone. When you're out for more than a week you lose hand-eye coordination. Mentally... it is tiring because you're forcing yourself to stay positive."

It is 11 years since Sharapova won Wimbledon in 2004 and now she is 28, history made, greatness acquired, but still she plays on. Love of the game, you understand. Not every day, she grins, but most days.

But love for what? Love for those edgy moments, where tennis feels like The Walk, a tightrope encounter, where to miss is to fall. Moments like "third-set tie-breakers". Moments, she says, "I work for". Moments, she insists, "I want to be in. I want to be going through those challenges. I want to pull through and you don't always. I want to put myself on the line and make it happen".

Sharapova at work is a perfect riposte to those who confuse talent with flair. Persistence is a talent of its own, doggedness is a gift, and sweat is presumably her favourite perfume. If she has survived a disloyal body, she has also overcome an awkward game to find a way to win.

"I grew up always finding the clay courts very challenging. I was never the fastest, I never recovered well." Gliding on the court like Federer? "Absolutely not," she laughs. But like a great athlete she discovered solutions and now, her voice tinged with pride, she says: "I have more French Open titles than any other Grand Slams. Personally, it was an incredible achievement for me."

If Sharapova has faltered, it is in contests with Serena Williams, who with an 18-2 advantage has turned a rivalry into a rout. To this truth, the Russian brings some grace. "For me, the level that (Serena) is at, I would hope that not only from my end but everyone else's end that it raises their level, that it raises their ability to know that they have to work more and harder in order to get to that level".

Beaten she has been by Serena, but Sharapova will not bend. She talks about the US Open - which she missed due to injury - where players were quizzed on Serena's Grand Slam prospects. "I was very surprised," says the Russian, "that a lot of players said, 'I do hope she achieves it.' (It) was surprising because I knew these players were going to be in the draw, so it was as if, I felt like, why are they even playing."

Then she pauses: "Maybe that's just the competitor in me."

Sharapova, who turns her back to her rival every point, is an acutely methodical woman who is hostage to habit. Even her response to every one of her five Grand Slam wins has been identical: On her knees, hands on face. And it is, she confesses, such deliberate behaviour that she brings to her off-court work. She has fun making Sugarpova, but she also wants it to be the "best candy brand in the world".

Smart and versatile, she is that rare female athlete who is at home in sports magazines, in Vogue and in Forbes. And right now, the interview done, this brand ambassador for Porsche - a sponsor of the WTA Finals - prepares to pose with one of their cars. "She is so tall," is the whisper from women, but there is nothing Sharapova has not heard.

She sits on a bench and puts on a fresh pair of shoes. Firmly she asks the photographers not to shoot as she does. She is not ready. And then she is. Black dress has been slipped into. Wind is in hair. Practised smile is on face. The cameras begin their clicking symphony. Maria Sharapova is all business. On Sunday she will be at play.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 22, 2015, with the headline 'Maria's career a fine mix of grit and smarts'. Subscribe