With all the talk of the recent comebacks of Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters, it’s almost as if Maria Sharapova’s long road back from shoulder surgery that took her out of the game for 18 months wasn’t that big a deal. But even if Sharapova’s prospects at this year’s Wimbledon are still iffy, what I find more intriguing is how her persona as the “ice queen”, a moniker bestowed upon her by the press due to her Siberian heritage and perhaps her sometimes cool demeanor, seems to be melting into one that is more accessible and more mature. Or is it the other way around and it’s the press and the public instead that’s finally warming up to the Russian superstar?
I mention all this as the Guardian UK just released a new interview with Sharapova where she discusses her long layoff from the game and reveals at one point she thought about walking away for good. But the interview also goes into depth about her time spent growing up in Florida as she learned her game and English while training at the Bollettieri Academy. We often forget that despite all her multi-million dollar endorsement deals and seeming embrace of her brand identity, that she didn’t come into that at birth. She had to earn it on the tennis court. Sharapova said in the interview, “It wasn’t like I had a famous boyfriend who made my career. I didn’t have a magazine that made my career. So I could have chosen to stop playing because we (she and her father Yuri) did it ourselves. But I love the sport too much to wake up and say I no longer want to do it. I missed it. It got to the point where I would look at books and pictures of some great moments I had on court just to remember what it felt like.”
I think a lot of tennis fans, although at first enjoying her early success at 17, got put off by Sharapova’s rise to fame and how she used her beauty to earn even more riches than she ever could while on a tennis court. As if the sport itself was only a springboard to a modeling career. And then the press, who loved putting her face on the front of the sports page, at the same time would bemoan how she and the other “pretty girls” were getting too much attention for their looks and not their games. Maybe now that she’s been away and that we’ve seen her struggle to get back to the top, have many started to appreciate Sharapova and that she truly wants to be out there on the court and not at a photo shoot on some tropical island. Even during her recent loss to Justine Henin at this year’s French Open, there was a sense that Sharapova’s game was almost there and that the hole she left the tour with during her absence would be filled.
So if the public and media are ready to finally embrace Sharapova, both the player who’s won three Grand Slams and the person who’s earned a gazillion dollars by simply looking into a camera, then what will her new nickname be? As most of the elite women players earn the right to be called by their first names, it’s probably fitting that instead of “Masha” or “Shrieka”, we simply call her Maria.