Maria Sharapova is regarded as a great of women’s tennis. She ranks 11th among the most successful female players of the Open Era, winning five Grand Slams and ranking as the world number one for a total of 21 weeks.
As the Russian turns 34, GiveMeSport Women looks back at the defining moments of her career, including her famed feud with Serena Williams and the controversy surrounding her doping ban.
The rise of Sharapova
Born in the Russian town of Nyagan in Russia, Maria Sharapova first hit a tennis ball when she was four years old. Since then, she has gone on to win the greatest accolades of the sport, including a career Grand Slam.
There are very few players who have had as big of an impact on their sport as Sharapova has had on tennis. She broke onto the public’s radar because of her sporting achievements, but it was her blonde hair and good looks that made big brands line up with lucrative endorsement deals for tennis’s newest star, catapulting her to fame and Forbes’ ‘Rich List’.
Sharapova made her professional debut in 2002 on her 14th birthday. Within a year, she was in the top 50. Less than a year after that, she was a household name after lifting her first major trophy, defeating Serena Williams in straight sets at the 2004 Wimbledon final.
It seems like the Russian liked winning Grand Slams every other year. Wimbledon in 2004, the US Open in 2006 and then the Australian Open in 2008, before two French Open wins in 2012 and 2014.
At 21, Sharapova had three Grand Slam titles to her name after securing the Australian Open in 2008, but the pinnacle of her career came in 2012. She became the tenth woman to achieve a career Grand Slam by beating Sara Errani in the final of the French Open.
Yet, it was also a year that Sharapova fell short and Williams came up trumps once again, thrashing her in the Olympic final 6-0, 6-1 and ensuring it was a silver medal rather than a gold one around Sharapova’s neck.
Her final major victory arrived in 2014 – her second French Open title and fifth overall. By this point, a shoulder injury had become a regular source of frustration for the Russian and something which continued until she retired last year. She had relied on a hard-hitting style of play and a powerful first and second serve, but these strengths were diminished by the injury and consequent surgery.
Perhaps rivalry is too strong of a word when comparing Sharapova with Serena Williams. As the Russian retired last year, the scoreline finished 20-2 to Williams.
Looking at it from a statistical viewpoint, it would be a disservice to the American to argue it was even remotely close, but it was the clash of personalities on and off-court that captured the attention of tennis fans and those further afield.
Since Sharapova’s first Grand Slam win at Wimbledon in 2004, she and Williams have dominated the WTA tour for 15 years. No other player offered the same consistency over that time frame. Despite the head-to-head record tilting massively towards Williams, Sharapova was the next best thing in women’s tennis.
That Wimbledon final created a narrative that was to last for the remainder of Sharapova’s career, and to a lesser extent, Williams’s.
The 17-year-old Russian entered Centre Court and defeated the two-time reigning champion 6-1, 6-4. Williams already had six Grand Slam titles to her name, whilst for Sharapova, it was just her sixth appearance at a major tournament. It was one of tennis’s greatest upsets and Sharapova burst onto the international stage.
In her memoir, Sharapova recalls Williams bawling after the 2004 final and saying, “I will never lose to that little bitch again.”
Williams was wrong. She did lose to Sharapova again and she didn’t have to wait around for long. The Serena and Sharapova rivalry started in 2004, and by all means, it ended in 2004. The pair met again in the finals of that year’s WTA Tour Championships and Williams, for the second and last time, lost to Maria Sharapova.
When you consider that Williams won the next 20 matches, you have to wonder how the rivalry that never was remained relevant . Sharapova had established herself as one of the few to beat Williams and her five major titles showed she was, at the time, one of the game’s very best.
She might not have achieved the same athletic feats that Williams has, but the pair did match each other in one thing. Every dig that came from Serena was met with retaliation from Sharapova.
Williams was described by many as a fiery player, wearing her heart on her sleeve and often losing her rag on court. Sharapova was painted as the opposite. She was well known for her loud grunts on the court but she was portrayed as a calculated, cold as ice, character.
It seems fitting that the Sharapova vs Serena feud was put to rest by the better of the two. In Sharapova’s last Grand Slam final, Williams won in straight sets to record her sixth Australian Open title. Again, in Sharapova’s last appearance at the US Open, it was her greatest foe, Serena, that she faced and fell to in the first round.