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TENNIS: Maria Sharapova retires from tennis at age 32 with 5 Slam titles

(AP) — Maria Sharapova was a transcendent star in tennis from the time she was a teenager, someone whose grit and groundstrokes earned her a career Grand Slam and whose off-court success included millions of dollars more in endorsement deals than prize money.

And yet, Sharapova walked away from her sport rather quietly Wednesday at the age of 32, ending a career that featured five major championships, time at No. 1 in the WTA rankings, a 15-month doping ban and plenty of problems with her right shoulder.

There was no goodbye tournament, no last moment in the spotlight, for someone so used to garnering so much attention for so long, with or without a racket in hand.

“I’ve been pretty good in the past, balancing my time with my sponsors with my tennis, because I know my priority. At the end of the day, what I love doing is competing, and that’s where my heart is at: on center court,” Sharapova said in a 2006 interview with The Associated Press right before that year’s U.S. Open.

“There are a couple of sides of me,” she said then. “There’s the Maria that’s a tennis player. There’s the Maria that is a normal girl. And there’s the Maria who’s a businesswoman. And that’s where the ‘Maria Sharapova brand’ comes into play.”

Around that time, she signed a “lifetime” contract with a racket company, a deal that eventually was ended. And two weeks after that, she would win the U.S. Open trophy while wearing an outfit that resembled a sparkly black cocktail dress, part of the “couple of sides” persona she cultivated.

Two years later, though, Sharapova missed the tournament at Flushing Meadows because she needed surgery on her shoulder, which has troubled her off and on ever since; she had another operation on that joint in 2019.

She lost the last four matches she played at major tournaments, with first-round exits in her past three appearances, including at the Australian Open in January. That turned out to be the last match of her career and made her 0-2 this season.

In an essay written for Vanity Fair and Vogue about her decision to retire, posted online Wednesday, Sharapova asks: “How do you leave behind the only life you’ve ever known?”

She disclosed that she “had a procedure to numb my shoulder to get through the match” a half-hour before walking on court for a first-round exit at last year’s U.S. Open, writing: “I share this not to garner pity, but to paint my new reality: My body had become a distraction.”

Born in Russia, and “discovered” by Martina Navratilova at an exhibition event in Moscow, Sharapova moved to Florida as a child and trained at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy.

“We’ll miss her, baby. She’s very special,” Bollettieri told the AP in an interview last year, when Sharapova returned to his academy as she worked her way back from her latest shoulder procedure. “The tour will miss her. … Always competitive. All business.”

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