Editor's Note: Maria Sharapova will be appearing at the 2020 Inc. 5000 Vision conference the week of October 19-23.
Tennis great Maria Sharapova announced her retirement from the sport on Wednesday, and she did it on her own terms. Where many athletes might have called a press conference, Sharapova chose instead to convey the news in an essay posted simultaneously by Vogue and Vanity Fair.
The 32-year-old Sharapova has won five Grand Slam events and played tennis for 28 years -- since she was four years old -- so to say the game has been her life is no exaggeration. It's even the reason she's here. Aware early of her athletic talent, her family moved to the United States from Russia to give Sharapova her best chance to train and compete. "How do you leave behind the only life you've ever known?" she writes.
The answer: Because it's time. Sharapova writes that she's always listened closely to the voice in the back of her head and that was how she was able to accept "those final signals." Her shoulder has been an ongoing problem and she's had multiple surgeries just to keep playing. Last August, she writes, she had to have a procedure to numb the pain just so she could make it onto the court at the U.S. Open. At last month's Australian Open, she admitted to reporters for the first time that she might not be able to come back for another year.
Sharapova, perhaps more than any other tennis star, looks like a model. That has served her well when it came to gathering major endorsements and things like a slot in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. But in a video accompanying her essay she looks back on photos of herself on the court -- photos that she says expose every wrinkle and every imperfection. "When I'm sweating and I'm pumping my fist, and I don't look very pretty but I look tough -- I love that version of myself," she says.
The truth about success.
Her video also does a great job of exposing a brutal truth about success. There is no "there" there -- no point where you arrive at feeling happy and satisfied with your accomplishments and confident in your own abilities. Her tennis career, as she describes it in her essay, was a constant round of self-scolding.
You've taken a few days off -- your body's losing that edge.
That extra slice of pizza? Better make up for it with a great morning session.
Her advantage on the court, she says, never came from feeling confident in her abilities, but on the contrary, because she always felt like she was "on the verge of falling off a cliff," and so she was always clawing her way upward. Even winning Wimbledon at 17 didn't feel to her like the huge victory it could have. "You always think of what your first successful moment might look or feel like but you get there and it is very different because it's real," she explains. "Yes, you won this huge thing, but life goes on."
Sharapova's long career had plenty of bumpy moments. As one ESPN sportscaster noted, she might have dominated women's tennis if it hadn't been for Serena Williams. Though Sharapova beat Williams for her first Wimbledon win, Williams beat Sharapova 20 of the 22 times they played each other. Then in 2016, Sharapova was suspended from the sport for two years (later reduced to 15 months) after she was caught using meldonium, a substance that had been banned earlier that year. Sharapova said she'd been taking the stuff for years because of health problems and was unaware that it was forbidden. She returned to the game in 2017, but either because of her long hiatus or her chronic shoulder problems, she was never the same contender again.
That, the painful procedures, and having to retire from her sport at 32 could easily make someone bitter. But she's not. And she's looking forward, not back. At the end of the video, she says this: "If I look at myself in the future, this is what I would probably say: 'You have a long way to go and you will form many more incredible memories in your life.'" Her future will doubtless come with ups and downs, just as her tennis career did, she says. "'Don't forget who you are along the way and good things will always happen. Because they usually do.'"