Maria Sharapova leaves a lasting, but complex, tennis legacy

Maria Sharapova, 32, retires as a polarizing figure, but the game of tennis is better for having her in it. AP Photo/Andy Wong

Maria Sharapova looked tired when she walked into the media room after her first-round loss at the Australian Open last month. Tired of losing, and tired of the questions that inevitably followed.

It was her third straight loss in the opening round at a major. But despite the evidence that the end of her career was in sight, she still managed to surprise the crowd of reporters with her answer to a question about whether she would play in Melbourne again after months -- years, really -- of defiance and frustration to such inquiries about her future in the sport.

"I don't know," she said with defeat evident in her voice. "I don't know. I was fortunate to get myself to be here, and thankfully to [Tennis Australia CEO] Craig [Tiley] and the team allowing me to be part of this event. It's tough for me to tell what's going to happen in 12 months' time."

With that admission of doubt, it became clear to most she wouldn't be competing much longer; however, no one in the room likely knew it would be her last tournament and news conference.

Simply put, there would be no more questions.

On Wednesday morning, in an essay posted by both Vogue and Vanity Fair, Sharapova announced she was retiring from tennis after 19 years on the WTA Tour.

"How do you leave behind the only life you've ever known?" she wrote. "How do you walk away from the courts you've trained on since you were a little girl, the game that you love -- one which brought you untold tears and unspeakable joys -- a sport where you found a family, along with fans who rallied behind you for more than 28 years?

"I'm new to this, so please forgive me. Tennis -- I'm saying goodbye."

In many respects, it was a fitting way for Sharapova to end her storied, yet complicated, career. The five-time Grand Slam champion and 36-time WTA titlist has never been one for doing things the way anyone else wanted her to. While others announce their impending departures leading into a season or a tournament in order to receive somewhat of a hero's sendoff from fans and fellow competitors, Sharapova wanted to walk away on her own terms with her voice making that clear. She didn't want to have her career ended by someone else's racket, and she certainly didn't want to answer anyone else's questions.

No matter what you think of Sharapova -- and she's certainly one of the most polarizing figures in the sport -- one thing is for certain: Her impact will be felt in tennis for years to come on and off the court. It's been a complex journey, but the game is better for having her in it.

Sharapova, 32, began playing the sport as a 4-year-old in her native Russia and immediately showed promise. Two years later, at a tennis clinic run by Martina Navratilova, the 18-time Grand Slam champion urged Sharapova's father to take his daughter to Florida to train. Despite limited resources, they picked up their lives and moved in hopes of giving the young Sharapova a chance for a better life. It didn't take long for that risk to pay off. She advanced to the fourth round at Wimbledon in her first full year on tour as a 16-year-old in 2003. She won her first major title at the All England Club the next year, stunning Serena Williams, the defending champion, in the final. From there, Williams became Sharapova's foil throughout her career. The lopsided "rivalry" ended with Williams holding a 20-2 head-to-head record.

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Flashback: Sharapova stuns Serena for Wimbledon title

On July 3, 2004, 17-year-old Maria Sharapova upset top seed and defending champion Serena Williams to win her first Grand Slam singles title.

It was a mostly steady rise in the years that followed. She became world No. 1 in 2005 for the first time, she won the US Open in 2006 and Australian Open in 2008. Away from the court, she was equally -- if not even more -- successful. Landing a slew of lucrative endorsement deals throughout her career, Sharapova was named by Forbes as the highest-paid female athlete in the world for over a decade (2006-16), thanks to contracts with brands such as Nike, Porsche, Canon, Gatorade and Tag Heuer. She started "Sugarpova," her candy line, in 2013. She also became a household name even to those who were the most casual of tennis fans. She was a regular fixture on red carpets and in fashion magazines, and her trademark grunt was known (and often ridiculed) the world over.

She began dealing with a shoulder injury in 2007 that plagued her for the rest of her career, but she underwent several surgeries and recoveries in order to return to the sport. She fell out of the top 100 in 2009 as a result, but returned to form and the top 10. Sharapova became only one of 18 players (men and women) to complete the career Grand Slam when she took home her first title at the French Open in 2012. She won it again in 2014, in what would be her last major victory.

While never a popular figure among her peers, due to her perceived cold demeanor and publicly saying she didn't want to have friends on tour, Sharapova faced her biggest controversy in 2016 after testing positive for the banned substance meldonium. The substance had been banned at the start of the year, and Sharapova, who said she had been taking it for years as a result of a variety of ailments, said she was unaware it was no longer allowed. She initially received a two-year ban, but it was reduced to 15 months upon appeal.

Sharapova returned to the WTA Tour in April 2017, but her game and reputation would never be the same. She advanced to the quarterfinals at the 2018 French Open, but otherwise wasn't much of a factor at Grand Slams. She won just one title in her return, at the 2017 Tianjin Open. She went into Melbourne ranked No. 145, but is currently No. 373. While she certainly could have continued to receive wild cards for tournaments because of her stature in the sport, it seems, based on recent results, it would have been nearly impossible for her to remain competitive against her increasingly younger peers. In her essay, she detailed the shoulder pain and the lengths she needed to go just to make it onto the court.

"I think she was never the same physically, emotionally, psychologically after coming back," said Pam Shriver, the 21-time doubles Grand Slam champion and ESPN analyst. "She never really got the Maria Sharapova mojo back for more than two matches in a row. Obviously a lot of people do talk and point to her three-set record before and after and look at the amount of injuries she dealt with after the suspension. Yes, she had the shoulder problems before, but they weren't as chronic.

"Unfortunately revisionists are going to say, 'She certainly seemed like a different player when she was on [meldonium] and it seemed to help her with her three-set record and to stay reasonably healthy.' Given that we're in an age where many players are competing well into their mid-30s, it's going to raise questions. I think that's fair. When you're in the public eye and are a professional athlete, it comes with the territory."

Still, despite her early exit in Australia, her influence on the sport was felt until the final day of competition. Sofia Kenin, the young Russian-born American, and her father have long credited Sharapova and her own father for inspiring Kenin's rise in the sport. Like Sharapova, Kenin showed early potential, and her family moved to Florida with nothing much more than a dream. Sharapova provided the blueprint to Kenin's first major title and whatever else lies ahead. Others such as Amanda Anisimova have said similar things. Sharapova has inspired immigrant families, particularly from Russia.

"She [Sharapova] was also so hungry, and she and her dad always wanted to prove she was a champion and they made a very brave champion-like decision to move to the U.S. at any early age," Shriver said. "As a Russian-born champion raised in the U.S., she's been so influential to the next generation.

"I think she will be remembered for being a great champion, but I think there is going to be a part of that legacy that is muddled because of the suspension. But I think she also deserves credit for bringing women athletes off the sports pages more. Not that others like Anna Kournikova and Gabriela Sabatini didn't do it the past, but she did it in such a fascinating way as a model and a businesswoman."

For so many players, regardless of country of origin, Sharapova has helped pave the way for sponsorships and signature deals. Alongside the Williams sisters, who also have their own companies, brands and endorsements, she showed the earning potential of a women's tennis player. In Forbes' 2019 list of the highest-paid female athletes, 12 of the top 15 were from the WTA. Despite her struggles on the court, Sharapova was still No. 7.

"Looking back now, I realize that tennis has been my mountain," she wrote. "My path has been filled with valleys and detours, but the views from its peak were incredible. After 28 years and five Grand Slam titles, though, I'm ready to scale another mountain -- to compete on a different type of terrain."