'Unstoppable' My Life So Far by Maria Sharapova
The fiercely honest, fearless, darkly funny autobiography of global tennis star Maria Sharapova. In the middle of the night, a father and his daughter step off a Greyhound bus in Florida and head straight to the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy.
They ring the bell, though no one is expecting them and they don't speak English. They have arrived from Russia with just seven hundred dollars and the conviction that this six-year-old girl will be the world's next great tennis star. They are right.
This is Maria Sharapova's gripping and fearless autobiography, telling her story from her roots in the small Siberian town her parents fled to after the Chernobyl disaster, through her arrival in the US with nothing and her phenomenal rise to success - winning Wimbledon aged just seventeen - to the disasters that threatened her career and her fight back.
Maria Sharapova overheard Serena Williams crying. That’s it, the big reveal in Unstoppable, Sharapova’s much-anticipated new memoir. Williams, says Sharapova, has hated her ever since.
The tears in question came after their first match, the 2004 Wimbledon final, in which the 17-year-old Russian upstart upset the defending champion. After the match, Sharapova entered the locker room. “What I heard, when I came in and started to change clothes, was Serena sobbing,” Sharapova writes.
There’s been bad blood ever since. “I think she hated me for taking something that she believed belonged to her,” Sharapova said. “But mostly I think she hated me for hearing her cry. She’s never forgiven me for it.” The frigidity between the two is well known in tennis, and Williams has unquestionably channeled it to her advantage, winning 19 of the 20 matches they’ve since played.
Sharapova beats Serena Williams to win Wimbledon aged 17 years old
By now, even the most casual tennis fan knows the story of Sharapova’s greatest misstep. In March 2016, the athlete, then 28, held a press conference to get out in front of news that she had tested positive for Meldonium, a Latvian drug doled out with Aspirin-like frequency throughout Eastern Europe, where it is used to treat a heart condition called ischemia.
The World Anti-Doping Agency had newly added the supplement to its list of banned substances, expressing concerns about Meldonium’s possible ancillary performance-enhancing benefits—particularly, perhaps, given its popularity with athletes from Russia, where a shockingly robust, state-sponsored doping operation had just come to light.
Sharapova was prescribed Meldonium by a family doctor in 2006 and had been taking it ever since. She hadn't bothered to read the fine print in an email alerting her to the drug’s changed status. Then, as she writes in the first line of the prologue to Unstoppable, “at some point toward the end of the 2016 Australian Open, a nurse asked me to pee in a cup.” The rest is history.
Sharapova’s negligence would cost her: She initially faced a two-year suspension from competition, later commuted to 15 months after WADA conceded that, though in violation of the rules, she had not intentionally broken them. That mandatory hiatus ended this spring, and Sharapova, now 30, got up, dusted herself off, and rejoined the tennis tour in April.
Finding her footing has been a slow process. In May, the powers that be at the French Open denied the once-top-ranked player a wild card slot. (Justifying the decision, French Tennis Federation president Bernard Guidicelli struck a rather sanctimonious tone: “It is up to Maria day after day, tournament after tournament, to find alone the strength she needs to win the big titles without owing anything to anyone.”)
In June, she had to pull out of a Wimbledon qualifying match after sustaining a thigh injury. In August, to criticism from players like Caroline Wozniacki, Sharapova was granted a wild card spot to compete in the U.S. Open—a major comeback opportunity, particularly given that her then–very pregnant rival Serena Williams, the victor in 19 of their 21 head-to-head bouts, would not be in attendance—only to be knocked out in the fourth round by Anastasija Sevastova.
Maria Sharapova made her comeback at the 2017 US Open
It’s been some time now since Maria Sharapova made news for something positive, though Unstoppable may change that. Penned with the help of journalist Rich Cohen, Sharapova’s book is an illuminating account of, as the subtitle has it, her life so far.
The memoir begins and ends with its author’s experience of the doping debacle, and though most of these chapters concern life before her suspension, the incident haunts her book: Unstoppable is about everything that made Sharapova the kind of unflappable competitor who wouldn’t let a 15-month service interruption, or the very vocal disapproval of her peers, come between her and her ambition. This is the bildungsroman of a controversial champion, a portrait of the athlete as an uncommonly driven young woman.
It’s also a Horatio Alger–worthy tale of rags to riches, with a slightly nihilistic Russian twist. “This is a story about sacrifice, what you have to give up,” the athlete writes. “But it’s also just the story of a girl and her father and their crazy adventure.”
Unstoppable takes Sharapova from in utero (her parents had her just after fleeing Gomel, Belarus, in the aftermath of an explosion at the nuclear plant in nearby Chernobyl) to the Black Sea resort town of Sochi, Russia, where the family settled after a stop in Siberia, and where Maria took up tennis as a knob-kneed kindergartener with a too-big racquet and an unusual knack for hitting, to Florida, where her 28-year-old father, Yuri, with $700 in his pocket, brought her at age 6 to seek their fortune, leaving Maria’s mother, Yelena, behind in the collapsing Soviet Union (she would eventually follow, several years later).
In America, the young athlete bounced from tennis academy to tennis academy (she calls it “tennis prison”) as her father, a non-English speaker with no connections in the States, struggled to find work, shelter, and, most pressingly, court time for his daughter.
(There’s an ever-urgent sense that, for an ambitious young player, each day of non-practice can be the difference between success and failure.) They first eagerly, then warily, sought out brand-name coaches who could help Sharapova realize her potential.
At Nick Bolletieri’s famed school, Sharapova trained in Anna Kournikova’s shadow and dressed in the older Russian’s hand-me-downs—until, rumor has it, Kournikova’s mother jealously convinced the coach that Yuri had kidnapped Maria. Father and daughter were cast out, though they would later be invited back. In the meantime, at another of these tennis factories, a vulture-like guru named Sekou Bangoura took them in, then withheld Yuri’s travel documents as a means of controlling his daughter, and proffered a contract to coach Maria that would have been tantamount to tennis indentured servitude.
Yuri her father sought after the help of coach Robert Lansdorp who had worked with several other top junior players. The relationship with the firey tempered Bollettieri had become unstable, Yuri was looking elsewhere. He gained the help of coach Reno Manne who coached Sharapova often away from the tension of the Bollettieri Academy.
Eventually Lansdorp took the Russian to California until a deal with IMG was formed. Yuri often consulted with Reno Manne who helped her with aspects of her game. Yuri tried to forge a deal with Manne to coach his daughter on a full time basis, Manne opted instead opted to move back to Europe to work with the LTA and the Norwegian Tennis Federation for 4 years.
Set apart from her peers by circumstance, talent, and her preternaturally intense focus—“That was my gift. Not strength or speed. Stamina. I never got bored. Whatever I was doing, I could keep doing it forever”—Sharapova describes a lonely childhood.
It was made palatable by her affection for her father—“it all just seemed like an adventure, a fairy tale,” she writes of those early years—and by her no-nonsense, immigrant attitude toward work. “You had an air about you,” remembers Bolletieri. “This is business, and you are in my way.” She describes, at 11, signing a sponsorship contract with Nike: “For the first time, I sort of understood what it was all about. Tennis is a sport, but it’s not just a sport.
It’s a passion, but it’s not just a passion. It’s a business. It’s money. It’s stability for my family. I got it now. You might think this would upset or disillusion me, but the opposite was true. I finally knew why I was doing what I was doing. I finally understood the stakes. It finally made sense. From that moment, my task became clear—just go out there and win.”