LONDON • It's always hard to score points against Maria Sharapova. Even in a verbal contest. When she was once asked about her trademark grunt-shriek, she didn't go into a long answer about breathing technique or the on-court dynamics of intense energy release.
She just replied: "Next question, please."
Game, set and match, Sharapova.
Despite the fame, the money, the modelling, the lucrative endorsements, the five Grand Slam titles, the world No. 1 ranking (she is now world No. 7), the launch of her own candy brand (Sugarpova, of course), there was always the impression that the world never quite saw the real Sharapova.
Yes, there were flashes of humour. After a match on a particularly blustery day, she deadpanned: "It's good that I ate some chocolate cake last night... I'm glad I put on a few pounds.
NO ESCAPE ROUTE
She played a Grand Slam with a performance- enhancing drug. There's not too many ways you can talk your way out of that. It's pretty tough to ask the players to be sympathetic.
LINDSAY DAVENPORT, former women's world No. 1, on Sharapova's failed drug test.
"Otherwise, I might have blown away out there."
Yet, she seemed a trifle aloof in the locker room. If she has close friends among the other women players, not one of them has come forward to take her side in the wake of her suspension.
Ironically, the one who has been most supportive of Sharapova in her crisis has been Serena Williams, with whom the Russian has had a testy off-court relationship.
Sharapova has always been blunt in reacting to others' expectations of her. "It's pretty hard being a tennis player and Mother Teresa at the same time and that's just the way it is," she once said.
She didn't always toe the line, either. "I'm not the biggest fan (of tennis," she said when asked about her viewing habits. "I'd rather watch something else than tennis."
And again, to drive home her credo, she said: "I can't please everyone. That's not in my J.D., you know, not in my job description."
But life wasn't always so easy. In 1989, when she was two years old, her parents moved from the Chernobyl region to Sochi, where her father became friends with a man called Aleksandr Kafelnikov, who gave the child her first racket.
ABSENCE OF RAPPORT
I'm not really friendly or close to many players. Every person has different interests. I have friends that have completely different jobs and interests. Ultimately tennis is just a very small part of what we do.
MARIA SHARAPOVA, on the lack of a relationship with fellow tennis players.
She and her father used to take the racket to the local park, where she discovered the simple joy of hitting a ball. Later, while she was defining her own path to stardom, the Kafelnikovs also had their own reason to celebrate - their son Yevgeny won two Grand Slam singles titles - the 1996 French Open and the 1999 Australian Open - and was the first Russian male world No. 1.
When she was six, she caught the eye of a visiting tennis player at a Moscow tennis clinic. The visitor's name was Martina Navratilova and she persuaded the girl's father Yuri to take her to the United States.
They did. Yuri and seven-year-old Maria left for the US in 1994 with just a borrowed $700 (S$960) to their names.
"I was living a normal, average, every-day life back in Russia and we had a dream and I had a talent and we moved to the US," she recalled.
Yuri Sharapov took odd jobs - including washing dishes - to finance his daughter's dreams. Visa restrictions meant that her mother Yelena remained in Russia, separated from her daughter for two years.
The experience forged not just her talent, but her fortitude as well. "I had only myself as company... it just made me tougher," she said.
When she was nine, the mighty IMG group stumped up the US$35,000 required for her to attend the prestigious tennis academy run by Nick Bollettieri.
WOMEN RICH IN TALENT
Forbes list of richest sportswomen from 2015 (tennis players unless stated):
1 Maria Sharapova - US$29.7 million (S$40.7 million)
2 Serena Williams - US$24.6m
3 Caroline Wozniacki - US$14.6m
4 Danica Patrick (motor racing) - US$13.9m
5 Ana Ivanovic - US$8.3m
6 Petra Kvitova - US$7.7m
7 Simona Halep - US$6.8m
8 Ronda Rousey (mixed martial arts) - US$6.5m
9 Stacy Lewis (golf) - US$6.4m
10 Agnieszka Radwanska - US$6m
When she turned professional on her 14th birthday, nobody could have guessed that she would be Wimbledon champion just three years later. In 2005, just a little more than a year later, she was world No. 1 for the first time.
She has won all four Grand Slams - taking the French Open twice - as well as an Olympic silver medal at London in 2012. But she wasn't winning friends on the circuit.
In 2013, she admitted: "I'm not really friendly or close to many players. Every person has different interests. I have friends that have completely different jobs and interests. Ultimately tennis is just a very small part of what we do."
Former top-ranked player Lindsay Davenport put it all in perspective after Sharapova's sombre admission in Los Angeles of the failed drug test in January, during the Australian Open.
"She played a Grand Slam with a performance-enhancing drug," said Davenport. "There's not too many ways you can talk your way out of that. It's pretty tough to ask the players to be sympathetic."
Sharapova's commercial success reveals an interesting ratio. Her endorsements have dwarfed her tournament winnings and, according to Forbes, she made almost US$30 million last year, with US$23 million - almost 80 per cent of that total figure - coming from off-court deals.
As leading sponsors Nike, Tag Heuer and Porsche distance themselves from Sharapova now, even American Express, which hired Sharapova as their "Face of the US Open" last year, said in an e-mail that "there's no planned work with her for this year".
It's a far cry from the image of the champion who is so conscious of her celebrity status that she peels labels off bottles of water, just in case she is photographed with a product not endorsed by her.
Sharapova knows how to handle the media after years of being in the spotlight, outside of tennis no less. It is no surprise then, that at her announcement in a Los Angeles hotel, everything was carefully picked out and worded, from the backdrop to her script and her black clothes.
It was a reminder that even a tennis superstar on the verge of losing all that she has worked for, must try her level best at damage control.
Still, as her lonely fight to stay top of her game has shown, the iron- willed Russian can count on few allies as she falls rapidly from grace.
BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE