It’s been three and a half years since Maria Sharapova retired from professional tennis, but the five-time Grand Slam champion recently came face-to-face with some former colleagues during an overnight trip to Toronto.
“I was in the hotel with some of the players and ran into some in the elevator, and they’re like, ‘What are you doing here?’ And I’m like, ‘What are you doing here?!’” Sharapova recalled with a laugh. “I didn’t know I was going to see so many players, so it was nice to be back in this atmosphere of seeing the athletes up close again.”
While the likes of World No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz were in town to compete at the 2023 National Bank Open presented by Rogers, Sharapova — who reached the final of the women’s event during her return from shoulder surgery in 2009, but admitted that she had struggled over the years to make the trip to Canada after playing at Wimbledon — was back in Toronto to speak at the second annual UNMATCHED: Gender Equity in Sports Conference.
Photo : Max Gao
“This is such a great way to meet people, interact with people, hear different perspectives, and I’m truly honored [to be here],” Sharapova told attendees at the Paramount EventSpace in Woodbridge on August 9. “I know last year Billie Jean King spoke, and I got a message from her partner, Ilana, last night: ‘Billie Jean was up on stage.’ And I was like, ‘Well, thanks so much. That’s a very tough act to follow!’”
In a wide-ranging conversation with Jennifer Bishop, a partner at Aird & Berlis LLP and executive board member at Tennis Canada, Sharapova spoke about the never-ending fight for gender equality in tennis, her transition away from the sport, and how she has been able to parlay her on-court success into becoming one of the highest-paid female athletes of all time.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF ARENA
Sharapova burst onto the scene in 2004 when, as a 17-year-old, she defeated top-seeded Serena Williams to win her maiden Grand Slam title at Wimbledon. Sharapova’s victory not only shot her to global fame seemingly overnight but also made her one of the most marketable athletes of her generation, allowing her to ink lucrative endorsement deals with brands such as Nike, Porsche, Evian, Tag Heuer, Cole Haan, Tiffany & Co. and Canon throughout her two-decade playing career.
In addition to becoming the 10th woman to complete the Career Grand Slam, she was reportedly the highest-paid female athlete for 11 consecutive years, according to Forbes, and was among the first tennis players to earn the majority of her income off the court.
“When I gained success at a young age, I was genuinely surprised by how much interest there was in my life in every single lane,” said Sharapova, who has now navigated more than half her life under the public spotlight. “I’ve had to stand up for myself many times. It wasn’t popular to be more than just a tennis player — to be interested in fashion, to have your own line. You’re in this sandbox, and you’re not allowed to play with anything else. And I feel like in some ways, I wanted to disrupt that. I wanted to challenge my brain in other ways. I realized that tennis was a business vehicle for many opportunities. I wasn’t going to be fantastic at it, but I could be curious and I could learn about the future of sport and the future of business.”
Read also: A Love of Tennis is Growing the Game in Ottawa
For the former World No. 1, balancing the competitive and business sides of tennis was never 50-50. “You have to be okay with the fact that you’re not always going to be there for someone if you have a career that entails you to be on the road for 10-11 months,” she said. “But first and foremost, I knew the one thing I was strong at was tennis. So, from the moment I woke up, it was the one thing and the one accomplishment I wanted to get through and do my best at. And when that would finish, whether I’d just had one practice, two practices — when that was over, I could focus on other things.”
But that isn’t to say that Sharapova didn’t give her all on the tennis court. With her remarkable steel, talent and drive, the Russian made a name for herself as one of the game’s fiercest competitors, despite being plagued with recurring injuries that led to her decision to retire in February 2020.
“Toward the end of my career, I tried very, very hard to get my body back in shape and injury-free, and a lot of that came from my stubbornness because I truly believed I could repair my ligaments and my tendons in my shoulder just if I worked harder,” Sharapova said with a self-deprecating laugh. “And sometimes, you have to let go of that stubbornness in order for there to be more beautiful things in your life to open up.”