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Stardom at 17, loneliness, and a doping scandal: Inside the life of Maria Sharapova. 

Maria Sharapova was just 18 when she was first dubbed world tennis number one.

15 years later, she’s calling time on her career after reaching that title five times, winning five Grand Slams, 36 titles and being named the highest-paid female athlete in the world for 11 consecutive years.

Aged 32, Sharapova says it’s time to say goodbye to the sport that “showed me the world,” telling Vanity Fair she is ready to “scale another mountain, to compete on a different type of terrain.”

But the tennis great’s career hasn’t just been about trophies and titles – long dubbed the “ice queen” by the world’s media – a drug scandal in 2016 saw the Russian champion’s career buckle, and since then she’s struggled to reach the same dizzying heights she once dominated.

WATCH: Maria Sharapova on the loneliness of sport.

A “lonely” childhood.

Four-year-old Maria Sharapova loved to play tennis.

Born in Russia in 1987, Maria and her father Yuri fled a tumultuous post-Soviet Russia for Florida after her parents were told of her potential in the sport, and were recommended she train abroad.

With just AUD $1,000 in his pocket, Maria and her father moved countries, leaving her mother behind. She wasn’t able to join them for more than two years because of visa restrictions.

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Aged nine Maria got a scholarship to train at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, but despite her natural skill, Maria grew up physically awkward – hanging from any beam she could find to try and make herself grow.

In her memoir she ponders if her height is down to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster: her mother was pregnant with her soon after, and “continued to drink the water and eat the vegetables,” she writes.

Being separated from her mum took a toll.

“I used to be so lonely. I missed my mother terribly. My father was working as much as he could so he couldn’t see me either,” Sharapova recalled in her memoir Unstoppable: My life so far.

Living and training with other kids was also tough. In her book she talks of falling asleep much earlier than the other kids who were older than her, who, when then entered the room hours later, would wake her up and order her to clean up the space.

Patrick Demarchelier (left) photographs Maria Sharpova for a TAG Heuer watch ad on a Malibu Beach. F
Growing up Maria Sharapova picked up many endorsements. Here she's modelling for a TAG Heuer watch ad on a Malibu Beach. Image: Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times via Getty.Images.
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“I learned how to take care of myself. I never thought about quitting because I knew what I wanted. When you come from nothing and you have nothing, it makes you very hungry and determined. I would have put up with much more humiliation and insults than that in order to steadfastly pursue my dream,” she wrote.

Dizzying career heights.

Maria turned professional on her 14th birthday, becoming the first Russian woman to ascend to the top of the tennis rankings.

She became a global star in 2004, when she won Wimbledon aged 17, upsetting top-seeded Serena Williams.

In Vanity Fair on Wednesday, Maria wrote: "I didn’t understand the magnitude of my victory until I was older—and I’m glad I didn’t," explaining that her edge in the sport was never feeling like she was superior to other players.

"It was about feeling like I was on the verge of falling off a cliff - which is why I constantly returned to the court to figure out how to keep climbing."

17-year-old Maria winning Wimbledon. Image. Photo by Bongarts/Bongarts/Getty Images.

She won the US Open the following year, catapulting her to world number one aged 18.

Her career went from strength to strength - she won 36 tour singles titles, an Olympic silver medal, and spent 21 weeks as world number one.

According to Forbes, she was the world's highest-earning female athlete for 11 consecutive years, earning the majority of her income from endorsements with companies like Nike and Evian.

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On Wednesday, Maria announced her retirement from the sport, having barely played in the past year due to shoulder injuries.

"Tennis—I’m saying goodbye," she wrote on Instagram, and in her exclusive feature story in Vanity Fair.

Her sporting colleagues are hailing her a "legend" of the sport, with Novak Djokovic telling media in Dubai she has the "mind of a champion."

"Her impact on the sport, not just women's tennis, but tennis in general, was great. It still is great," he said.

Petra Kvitova wrote on Twitter: "It was a pleasure to share the court with you @MariaSharapova. We always had great battles when we played and I have so much respect for your hard work and the way you always fight for everything."

Doping, injury and feuds.

Maria has been dogged by injury since 2007 when her shoulder trouble first emerged. A second shoulder injury in 2008 kept her sidelined for the second half of the season, and she missed the US Open and Beijing Olympics. It would be an injury that would follow her until retirement.

In 2016, at the Australian Open, she tested positive to prohibited heart drug meldonium and was banned from the sport for 15 months.

At the time she had not realised that meldonium, which she said she had taken for health issues throughout her career, had been added to the World Anti-Doping Agency's banned list.

Maria Sharapova Announces She Failed Doping Test
Tennis player Maria Sharapova addresses the media regarding a failed drug test at The LA Hotel Downtown on March 7, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. Image: Kevork Djansezian/Getty.
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She returned to tennis in April 2017 after being handed some wildcards which drew criticism from other players, including Andy Murray and Eugenie Bouchard, who said she should not have been allowed to return.

In a BBC interview in 2017, Maria denied cheating, and said: "I don't think it's for them to really have an opinion, because they don't have the facts. So, you know, I think that those are the types of words that make headlines and they will be used as headlines.

"But ultimately, this is my career, and I faced it head on, and I admitted my mistake, and I went about it and I served my suspension and now I'm back."

She also drew criticism from the media throughout her career, being tarred with the nickname "ice queen" early on.

The Guardian’s Kevin Mitchell wrote she “could freeze a room with her aloof grandeur” and “will be remembered as the ice queen of the sport, respected more than loved inside the game”.

Tennis.com’s Steve Tignor described her career fall from grace as problematic, writing: "Instead of being remembered solely for her skill and her will, she leaves behind a cloudy, unresolved legacy, one that will likely always exist in the eye of the beholder."

Then there was the "feud", which also followed Maria throughout her career.

In Maria's memoir she mentions Serena Williams multiple times describing her as someone who has "marked the heights and the limits of my career — our stories are intertwined."

"It was Serena whom I beat in the Wimbledon final to emerge on the international stage at seventeen, and it’s Serena who’s given me the hardest time since," she added.

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Serena dismissed the memoir's contents as "hearsay," adding that it was "a little bit disappointing".

Serena and Maria
Maria says her career has "intertwined" with Serena's over the years. Image: Clive Brunskill/Getty.

Since her victory at the age of 17 and the rumour that Serena remarked: "I will never lose to that little bitch again," afterwards in the locker room, the two tennis greats have been constantly compared.

Williams kept to her (rumoured) word, and by 2019 had beaten Maria Sharapova for the 19th straight time.

Word of a "feud" was fuelled by one of their infamous squabbles on the eve of Wimbledon 2013, when Serena told a press conference, "Maria starts every interview with: I'm happy or I'm lucky. It's a bore," to which Maria replied:"I have a great deal of respect for Serena and for what she managed to win. However, I think she should talk about her successes, rather than the whole rest," reported Tennis World USA.

"If she wants to talk about something personal she could tell us about the relationship with a man who once divorced and who now also has a daughter. She could tell us this and not things that don't concern her," she continued.

Her retirement hasn't come as a surprise to experts, with the former world number only playing two matches this year - losing in the first round of the Australian Open - sliding her ranking to 373.

From singers to tennis stars to Alexander.

As with any celebrity in the spotlight, Maria's dating life has always been tabloid fodder.

In 2008 she briefly dated lead singer of Maroon 5 Adam Levine, who she met at her 18th birthday party.

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Maria Sharapova briefly dated Maroon Five's Adam Levine. Image: Theo Wargo/WireImage for London Misher PR.

In 2005 she started dating fellow tennis player Andy Roddick, and the highly publicised couple were dubbed "Rodapova" after being seen frequently together at the 2006 US Open.

She went on to date TV producer Charlie Ebersol, basketball player Sasha Vujacic, and tennis player Grigor Dimitrov.

Maria has been dating British businessman Alexander Gilkes since 2018, who went to college with Prince Harry, and was previously married to fashion designer Misha Nonoo, the woman who got Harry and Meghan Markle together.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

#hohoho #matching????

A post shared by Alexander Gilkes (@gilkesa) on

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He's the owner and co-founder of Paddle8, an online auction platform for art and collectables, and was on the list of 100 Most Powerful People in the Art World three years consecutively.

"To the kindest and most professional person I know, here is to you Maria, and all that awaits you in your next chapter! May you continue to inspire us all with your deep humility, self-deprecation, strength and focus. As a remarkable first chapter closes with so many extraordinary fetes, we look forward to all that you will accomplish with equal grit in the years to come. Proudly and lovingly," he wrote on Instagram as news of Maria's retirement broke.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

To the kindest and most professional person I know, here is to you Maria, and all that awaits you in your next chapter! May you continue to inspire us all with your deep humility, self-deprecation, strength and focus. As a remarkable first chapter closes with so many extraordinary fetes, we look forward to all that you will accomplish with equal grit in the years to come. Proudly and lovingly, xx ???? ——— “How do you leave behind the only life you’ve ever known? How do you walk away from the courts you’ve trained on since you were a little girl, the game that you love—one which brought you untold tears and unspeakable joys—a sport where you found a family, along with fans who rallied behind you for more than 28 years? I’m new to this, so please forgive me. Tennis—I’m saying goodbye.”

A post shared by Alexander Gilkes (@gilkesa) on

Life after tennis.

In 2012, Maria opened her own candy company called "Sugarpova," which she opened to reflect her "sweet side."

"My dad would reward me with a lollipop or chocolate after a long day of practice,” the athlete and entrepreneur explained on her candy company website.

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Speaking to CNBC she explained that she started to think about life after the court as early as 2008 when she suffered a shoulder injury that sidelined her.

"I was 21 years old, I didn’t know if I’d be able to play again," she told the broadcaster in 2015. "[It was the] first time I really started thinking about business and my own ventures."

Today, the athlete’s candy and chocolate line is available in 22 countries and Maria still incorporates a fun mix of tennis and sport into her designs and packaging, from her "sporty mix" to serving truffles in tennis ball containers.

Proceeds from the company go to the Maria Sharapova Foundation — a charity set up to help victims of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident from which her parents fled.

As she told CNBC in 2015: "[By 21] I had made enough money to not have to work for the rest of my life and be able to support my family and be very happy."

Numerous sources report her current net worth is sitting at around $135 million, which equates to AUD $206 million.

Feature image: Getty.

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