That coach on practice court 2, is that the woman I saw pull off an upset a few years ago? And that hitting partner, he sure looks familiar. Are you kidding me, the surprise quarterfinalist from 2012 was in your buddy’s suite? Cool.
A subterranean plot line of the US Open is the surfacing of former pros, back on the grounds as coaches, advisors, corporate guests, promoters, fans, wanderers. Some are recognizable, albeit often faintly.
But there was no uncertainty surrounding the presence of Maria Sharapova Thursday night at the US Open, who dropped by the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center to watch the women’s semis and take a guest turn in the ESPN broadcast booth.
Half Sharapova’s life ago, she was a 17-year-old prodigy who took the world by surprise when she beat Serena Williams in the 2004 Wimbledon final. Now 35 years old, Sharapova this July became a mother, giving birth to a son, Theodore. The father is Sharapova’s fiance, Alexander Gilkes, a British businessman.
Sharapova is also an automatic International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee, a winner of five Grand Slam titles and one of only 10 women to have earned the singles titles at all four majors.
Time moves so swiftly that it seems a very long time ago when Sharapova last competed. She announced her retirement in late February 2020, just days before the onset of the global pandemic. Her 36th and final WTA singles title was earned in 2017. And Sharapova’s run to the US Open title came 16 years ago.
Distant in memory as those accomplishments may appear to be, I remember Sharapova’s finest fortnight in New York quite vividly—more so than most title runs. The reason for this is that all through the summer of 2006, I’d been hunting and gathering material about her for a Tennis Magazine profile. Two years after the breakthrough Wimbledon win, could Sharapova earn another major? Off I went, studying her persona closely at the All England Club, in San Diego and Los Angeles, and finally at the US Open.
A major challenge when writing about Sharapova was to wrestle with the opposing concepts of artifice and authenticity. Artifice came in the form of Sharapova’s vast array of corporate partnerships. Authenticity surfaced in how Sharapova conducted her tennis business. As limited technically and tactically as any multi-Slam champion in tennis history, Sharapova willed herself to one triumph after another, perhaps most impressively when, a decade into her career, she learned to compete effectively on clay and won two titles at Roland Garros.
But the athlete I was profiling in the summer of ‘06 had to that point won a single major. To talk with Sharapova was to mostly encounter someone quite serious—save for those moments when she admitted to such human qualities as accidentally cutting herself when cooking and keeping a stamp collection. As Sharapova told me, her friends had dubbed her, “the dork in the group.”
Artifice and authenticity came together perfectly for Sharapova that year in New York. The black dress she wore was intended to evoke the spirit of the outfit Audrey Hepburn had worn in a quintessential New York movie, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Meanwhile, through match after match, Sharapova, seeded third that year, devoured her opponents for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The only time she lost a set had come in the semis. Versus first-seeded Amelie Mauresmo, Sharapova won the first set, 6-0, lost the second 6-4, then rebounded loudly to win the third, 6-0. In the final, she convincingly beat second-seeded Justine Henin, 6-4, 6-4. True to Sharapova’s self-admitted klutz-like qualities, as she lifted the US Open trophy, the lid slid off the top and fell to the ground. My working title for the profile: “The Ditzy Diva.”
But there’d also been controversy. After splitting sets with Mauresmo, Sharapova received a signal from her support team to take a bathroom break. During the final, Sharapova’s father, Yuri, motioned for her to eat a banana. These were each examples of illegal coaching. But as Sharapova said following the final, “I just won a Grand Slam. The last thing I’m gonna talk about is some fingers or a banana, all right? I hope you got that one, thanks.” As the late journalist Howard Cosell often said, there you have it.
That night, as Sharapova exited a press conference that was at once stormy and celebratory, she briefly turned to me and said, “I hope this helps your story.”
Given Sharapova’s ability to frequently craft a path for herself, one wonders if Thursday night’s US Open visit was merely a one-off or perhaps a prelude for another role in the sport. It would be fantastic, for example, if Sharapova could serve as a mentor to such players as Naomi Osaka and Sofia Kenin, each of whom is grappling with the emotional challenges that accompany early success, rapid wealth, family relationships, and so many more of the questions that surface for tennis prodigies.
Or are there other Sharapova ventures afoot that will see her surface at more tennis events?
Whatever route Sharapova takes, just don’t expect to see her in a warmup suit