• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Ave Maria: Once held back by feet of clay, Sharapova has turned herself into a specialist

If the beauty of sport is its unpredictability, then Maria Sharapova's career has been an exemplary illustration.

She has always had the look of a champion but Maria Sharapova's appearance has misled some into underestimating her work ethic. Picture: Reuters
She has always had the look of a champion but Maria Sharapova's appearance has misled some into underestimating her work ethic. Picture: Reuters

The Russian has been at the forefront of women's tennis, in one way or another, since she burst on to the scene 10 years ago to win Wimbledon aged 17. It is natural to picture her as a multi-million-dollar cover girl who lives an idyllic existence touring round the world playing tennis and picking up endorsement cheques.

Yet Sharapova's career has been anything but smooth. Her journey to reach this point has perhaps not been fully appreciated. Consider that Sharapova will go into next week's French Open burdened by the moniker 'Queen of Clay'. This transformation, from a player who was considered something of a joke on this surface to a true dirt-baller, is remarkable and something few others have been able to achieve. Almost without exception, players know their best surface and, more often than not, it remains that way for the remainder of their career. Yet Sharapova has found a way to turn her worst surface into her best.

When the Russian won Wimbledon in 2004, she was a grass and hard-court specialist and one of the most compelling transitions on the WTA Tour in recent years has been Sharapova's metamorphosis into arguably the best clay-court player on the circuit.

Such was her obvious discomfort on clay in the past, she described herself as 'Bambi on ice' on the surface, yet Sharapova will arrive at Roland Garros next week as the clear second favourite for the title she won in 2012 when she completed her career grand slam. Only the indomitable Serena Williams is available at shorter odds to win the French Open title.

The 27-year-old is fully deserving of this level of expectation: her form on clay over the last few years has been nothing short of phenomenal. Prior to her loss to Ana Ivanovic in Rome last week, Sharapova's only defeats on clay since 2011 had been to Williams. Her win-loss record over this period is 47-4, with eight of her last 10 titles having been won on the surface. It is an incredible statistic for a player who made her name on the hard court and grass, and it has had a lot to do with her renowned work ethic.

After all, hurdles have been something Sharapova has overcome throughout her career. Born in Nyagan before relocating with her parents to Sochi as a result of their concern about the after-effects of the Chernobyl disaster, Sharapova first picked up a tennis racket at the age of four and what happened next in her life is well documented.

At the age of seven, she and her father left Russia for the United States where the gifted young girl began attending the renowned Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida. The father and daughter pairing left Sharapova's mother behind in Sochi, arriving in the US with less than $1000 between them. Her father worked his way through various low-paid jobs to support his daughter's dream. It would be more than two years before Sharapova would see her mother again and, with telephone calls only possible every six months, letter-writing was their primary method of communication.

She turned professional on her 14th birthday and became the third-youngest winner of the Wimbledon title three years later. Sharapova's defeat of Williams in the final was one of the biggest upsets the sport has seen, and many more grand slam successes were anticipated. It has not proved to be quite that simple.

Sharapova's career has been plagued by injury, the most serious of which was a torn rotator cuff in 2008 which required shoulder surgery. No top tennis player has recovered from this injury to return to the Tour but Sharapova's tenacity shone through and she was back on court after almost a year's absence.

She is now the world's highest-earning sportswoman and has even gone some way to changing prevailing Russian attitudes to women. She was the country's first female Olympic flag-bearer at London 2012, ending years of pandering to male athletes.

Sharapova's beginnings are not unique - countless children have relocated from their country of birth in pursuit of sporting success - but the distance travelled by Sharapova from her humble beginnings is truly remarkable. She is one of the most recognisable sportswomen in the world and now also a successful businesswoman. She has not forgotten her roots, having donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Chernobyl-related causes.

Approaching Roland Garros next week, Sharapova will be looking to add to her four grand slam titles. With her ferocious, never-say-die attitude and her recent transformation into a claycourt specialist, I wouldn't bet against her.

Contextual targeting label: 
Sport

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

235305