Maria Sharapova, the tennis star who became one of the richest and most famous athletes of the 21st century, is retiring at age 32, worn down by injuries that hindered her as she tried to return to the top of the sport following a suspension for using a banned substance.
Sharapova, a tall and intense Russian who punctuated her flat groundstrokes with piercing shrieks, won five Grand Slam singles titles, starting with Wimbledon at age 17 in 2004, when she beat the No. 1 seed Serena Williams in a hard-hitting final. Yet Sharapova made an arguably more indelible mark off the court as the highest-earning women’s athlete for 11 straight years, according to Forbes. With endorsements from companies like Nike and Evian, she reportedly earned close to $30 million in 2015 before her suspension in 2016 knocked her down the game’s pecking order.
She was punished for using meldonium, a drug developed for heart patients that is said to improve blood flow and help athletes recover faster. Sharapova said she had been taking it for 10 years because of a magnesium deficiency, dizziness and a family history of diabetes. But she claimed to be unaware that the drug had recently been added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances. Her suspension was cut from two years to 15 months on appeal, with an arbitration panel declaring that “under no circumstances” should she be considered “an intentional doper.”
She met resistance after returning to the tour in April 2017, with some tournament officials choosing not to offer her invitations to play, and some players expressing discontent when she was granted wild cards, arguing that it was unfair for a player returning from a ban to receive such a boost.
Though Sharapova reached the semifinals of her comeback tournament in Germany, she struggled by her standards in her final two seasons, her lone win coming at a lower-level event in China in October 2017.
At the Grand Slam tournaments, she made the 2018 French Open quarterfinal, then lost in the first round of her last three majors. Barring a change of heart, Sharapova’s final tour-level match will have been a 6-3, 6-4 defeat to Donna Vekic at the Australian Open last month.
She was set to announce her retirement on Wednesday.
“Maria is very smart, very savvy and very professional, probably the ultimate professional,” Steve Simon, the chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association, said in a recent interview. “She’ll be remembered very well for what she brought to the game, and I think everybody thinks of her as the ultimate competitor.”
After her return, Sharapova experienced an increase in pain. She underwent a surgical procedure in February 2019 in her right shoulder to repair a fraying tendon and a small labrum tear. But she suffered more damage and further fraying after that surgery, and also struggled with intersection syndrome in both forearms, which would sometimes leave her unable to grip her racket.
Down to No. 373 in the rankings, she decided to end her career after the Australian Open, declining to ask for a wild card that she likely would have received into next month’s BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif.
The fact that Sharapova was not as successful after her suspension could lead to the conclusion that she was less successful without meldonium. She and her former coach Sven Groeneveld have both rejected that line of thinking.
“I understand that, and that might be the trend of what people are saying, but I can tell you right now that when we were at the end of 2015, she already went through a lot of injuries and illnesses,” Groeneveld said in a recent interview. “She was getting sick a lot. She always would get a cold out of the middle of nowhere. We tried to figure out what that was all about with her immune system, and she did everything possible to actually avoid the injuries. But in 2015 she was already getting the injuries, so listen, I know Maria and I trust her and I’ll put my hand in the fire for her.”
Sharapova’s start in tennis came at age 6, when she moved from Russia to Florida with her father Yuri, after Martina Navratilova had noticed Sharapova’s potential at a Moscow clinic and recommended she train abroad.
Sharapova, who was separated from her mother Yelena for more than two years because of United States visa restrictions, showed remarkable steel, drive and talent as she worked her way to the top.
She won five Grand Slam singles titles in all, including the United States Open in 2006, the Australian Open in 2008, and the French Open in 2012 and 2014, despite clay being her least-favored surface.
“I feel like a cow on ice,” she said memorably in 2007, demonstrating the sharp wit that was often impossible to detect on tour as she slammed no-nonsense groundstrokes and avoided forming bonds with her peers to maintain a competitive edge.
She won 36 tour singles titles in total, an Olympic silver medal in singles in 2012 and the Fed Cup title with Russia in 2008. She was ranked No. 1 for the first time in August 2005 and spent 21 weeks in the top spot.
Sharapova played like she practiced: at full volume and intensity, throwing herself into the challenge with evident relish despite some technical and physical shortcomings. Her forehand was once considered enough of a liability that she considered hitting it with her left hand instead of her right. She seldom liked playing at the net, and her foot speed could not compare to rivals like the Williams sisters, Justine Henin and Simona Halep.
But she had a fluid, world-class two-handed backhand and a deep understanding of how to construct a baseline point. She also had one of the most fearsome serves in the game before her first shoulder surgery in 2008 for a torn rotator cuff.
Above all, she had a point-to-point intensity similar to men’s star Rafael Nadal.
“The girl has no fear,” Robert Lansdorp, one of her childhood coaches, said when Sharapova made her tour debut at age 14 in Indian Wells in 2002.
Many would echo Lansdorp’s sentiments through the years, but there were obstacles she still could not overcome, including Serena Williams, who, after losing to Sharapova at Wimbledon and in the 2004 tour championships, never lost to her again, finishing with a 20-2 head-to-head record.
It was Williams’s era, no doubt, but Sharapova made herself heard loud and clear just the same.