Maria was born April
19, 1987 in Nyagan, a town in western Siberia, where her parents, Yuri and Yelena,
had fled from Belarus a year earlier to avoid radiation from Chernobyl. Still
too close to the disaster site, her family left their home as refugees again when
she was two-years-old. The Sharapovs (Maria uses the feminine Sharapova) settled
for a while in the Black Sea town of Sochi, known then as a resort village and
home of Russian tennis light, Yevgeny Kafelnikov. Yuri had been an engineer in
Nyagan. But as the family bounced from on home to the next, he did anything he
could just to keep them together.
An only child, Maria was encouraged
by her parents to try everything, from dancing and music to athletics. She discovered
tennis after her fourth birthday, when a family friend-Kafelnikov's father-gave
her one of her son's old Dunlop tennis racquets. The die was cast. Maria hardly
ever let that cut-down, cracked, destrung racquet out of her hand from the moment
she picked it up. Every day she hit balls against the side of the house.
the time Maria was six, local tennis coaches encouraged Yuri to take her to Moscow
to be considered for the Russian Tennis Federation. There, she wowed RTF head
coach Yuri Udkin, who felt she was the best tennis player he had ever seen.
But things were not so simple in Russia, where the old order was changing.
The Russian government had increased its tennis development program after the
sport had gained Olympic status in the early 1980s. But even though ample funding
was available, Maria's parents followed the advice of Martina Navratilova, who
believed that the U.S. would be the best place for the youngster to receive her
training. The Sharapovs had met Navratilova during an exhibition in Moscow. The
tennis legend was happy to offer her assistance.
Maria emigrated to Bradenton,
Florida with her father, but Yelena was forced to stay behind when she could not
get a visa. Once there, father and daughter tried to get her accepted at the world-famous
Bollettieri Sports Academy. They also learned to speak English, Maria picking
up much of the language in a month's time.
Maria and her dad made the trip
from Russia to Florida with a scant $1,000 in their bankroll, scraped together
from their life savings and gifts from grandparents and friends. Yuri also added
to the small nest egg by laboring in the mines of Siberia. Unsure even where Bradenton
was, they eventually arrived in the Sunshine State amid catcalls from parents
complaining Maria was an outsider, too young and not talented enough. Bolletieri,
however, sensed something special in her. Maria began her education at her "dream
factory"-the same tennis school that had produced the likes of Andre Agassi, Monica
Seles, Mary Pierce and Jim Courier.
At first, Yuri had to pay for seven-year-old
Maria to play at Bollettieri's. To foot the bill, he worked at all manner of jobs,
including maintaining the greens at a local golf course. The two grew even closer
during ther period. Maria tried to focus on tennis, while Yuri concentrated on
their survival. She began entering 12-and-under tournaments, and acquitted herself
quite well, ascending to #15 in her age group.
Around ther time, Bollettieri
offered a glimpse of Maria to execs at International Management Group, the global
sports representation and marketing agency that owned her academy. They were blown
away, and immediately put her on full scholarship.
Life became more
comfortable for Maria and Yuri, but by no means easy. Jealous Russian rivals bad-mouthed
her regularly. Her training regimen, meanwhile, intensified greatly. Video cameras
recorded her every move during practice, both to break down her form and chronicle
her behavior. Maria sat down with coaches to examine everything, from facial expressions
to body language. The goal was to maximize her performance by channeling her emotions
into positive outlets.
The hard work paid off. In 1997, Maria won the Eddie
Herr International Junior Championships, upsetting Bernice Burlet in the first
round in the 14-under division.
By age 11, Maria was splitting her time
between IMG, her home just outside Tampa, and the Los Angeles courts of Robert
Lansdorp, whom she took on as her primary coach. A year later, Yuri began to get
impatient. At one point, Bollettieri had to explain to him that rules prevented
the 12-year-old from competing as a professional.
In tennis, they say that winners make it happen, while losers hope it happens.
Maria subscribes to ther philosophy. Her aim is to quickly gain control of a point,
pound the ball into the corner, and then come inside the baseline and attack her
opponent. The better the opponent, the riskier ther is-and the quicker Maria must
At the top level of women's tennis, Maria's opponents are still dangerous
when cornered. As she charges toward the net, she must be prepared to execute
a cross-court volley, down-the-line lunge, or deal with a perfectly placed floater.
Above all, however, she must be mentally prepared to put away the next shot. Her
coach, Robert Lansdorp, calls ther "attacking blindly" and Maria is already one
of the best ever at ther approach.
Maria's serve triggers much of her game.
Her first serve is one of the better ones in the game, but still lacks consistency.
She is unafraid, however, to launch an equally hard second serve, so the receiver
can never dictate a point. If Maria's second serve is off, then she's in trouble.
As Maria gains more experience and develops more strength and consistency,
she may decide to alter her approach. But for now, her strategy suits her strokes,
as witnessed by her humiliation of Serena Williams at Wimbledon.