Ever since winning Wimbledon as a wide-eyed 17-year-old, Maria Sharapova has rarely been far from the headlines.
The Russian leaves tennis as one of its bona fide global superstars alongside the Williams sisters, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
Sharapova arrived on the scene at a time when teenage grand slam champions were not unusual but, from the way she dispatched Serena Williams – grunts and all – to the on-court phone call to her mother afterwards, it was clear the Russian was star material.
Her story, too, was one to capture imaginations.
Tennis showed me the world—and it showed me what I was made of. It’s how I tested myself and how I measured my growth. And so in whatever I might choose for my next chapter, my next mountain, I’ll still be pushing. I’ll still be climbing. I’ll still be growing. Tennis—I’m saying goodbye.
A post shared by Maria Sharapova (@mariasharapova) on Feb 26, 2020 at 5:19am PST
Born in Siberia after her parents moved from their home in Belarus fearing the effects of the nearby Chernobyl disaster, Sharapova showed exceptional promise at tennis.
The family took advice from Martina Navratilova, and Sharapova and her father Yuri moved to Florida to further her training when the Russian was only six.
Neither could speak English and Sharapova did not see her mother until she was able to join them two years later.
Her formative years shaped Sharapova on and off court. A ferocious competitor, the 32-year-old was interested only in winning matches.
Her rivals considered her cold and unfriendly, so it was no surprise when support was hard to come by in the most difficult moment of her career.
When Sharapova called a press conference in March 2016, the speculation was that chronic shoulder problems were forcing her to retire.
Instead, she revealed she had failed a doping test for the cardiac drug Meldonium having not realised it had been added to the banned list at the end of 2015.
She was suspended for 15 months but, while authorities accepted she was not trying to cheat, the issue cast a cloud over her career.
2006 US Open
2008 Australian Open
2012 French Open
2014 French Open
Whether Sharapova’s failure to return to the top of the sport was in any way linked to Meldonium remains a matter of conjecture but her biggest physical Achilles heel was undoubtedly her right shoulder.The Russian first began to experience problems in 2007, undergoing surgery in late 2008.
She had to rebuild her serve – a key weapon in her victories at Wimbledon in 2004, the US Open in 2006 and the Australian Open in 2008.
The stroke would be friend and foe for the rest of her career but there were plenty of high points to come, not least two French Open titles.
Having famously described herself on clay in 2007 as like “a cow on ice”, it was somewhat ironic that Roland Garros ended up being her most successful grand slam venue.
After completing her career Grand Slam – the 10th woman to do so – in 2012, Sharapova regained the title two years later.
She was ranked world number one on five separate occasions for a total of 21 weeks. She first hit top spot aged 18 and got there for the last time after her first French Open success.
Sharapova also won 36 WTA Tour titles, including the WTA Finals in 2004, and claimed a silver medal at the London Olympics in 2012.
The Olympic final was an unhappy experience, though, with Sharapova winning just one game against Serena Williams.
The pair were always described as great rivals, and there was certainly no love lost between them, but on court it was a startlingly one-sided rivalry, with Williams winning 19 straight matches dating back to 2004.
A post shared by Maria Sharapova (@mariasharapova) on Oct 3, 2019 at 8:00am PDT
Writing in her autobiography, ‘Unstoppable: My Life So Far’, Sharapova said: “I think Serena hated me for being the skinny kid who beat her, against all odds, at Wimbledon.”
Despite her cold reputation, Sharapova’s sharp sense of humour was often in evidence.
In her announcement that she had failed a drug test, the Russian said: “I know many of you thought I was retiring but, if I was ever going to announce my retirement, it would probably not be in a downtown Los Angeles hotel with this fairly ugly carpet.”
In recent years, Sharapova has married her tennis career with business interests, including the launch of her sweet and chocolate line Sugarpova.
She may not be missed by her fellow players, but tennis will miss a woman who always stood out from the crowd.