Maria Sharapova explains why 'Unstoppable' is the right title for her memoir
The call dropped, not once, but four times. Each time, Maria Sharapova dialed back.
"Where does the title 'Unstoppable' come from?" she was asked.
She started to answer the question about the name of her memoir, which is out Tuesday, but static from the phone competed with her words.
"Do you mind calling me on the hotel phone?" she asked.
Finally, the interview started.
In Sharapova's first memoir, she writes about her sloppiness when she didn't read the list of banned drugs included in an International Tennis Federation e-mail. About her journey from Russia to America with her father, Yuri, to play professional tennis -- a story that made many parents on the tennis circuit in Florida suspicious. About her time perfecting her game at the Bollettieri Tennis Academy (coached by legend Nick Bollettieri), where she had only a "single change of clothes and an oversized chopped-down racket." About her mentorship with Robert Lansdorp, who worked with Tracy Austin -- the youngest US Open champion -- and told Sharapova during her first lesson with him: "Get your ass out on the court." Lansdorp was tough, but equally soft. Then there were her "string of embarrassing defeats" at age 14.
"I lost in the daytime and I lost at night," she writes. "I lost in front of small and big crowds."
She reached the No. 1 ranking at 18, and a year before that she beat Serena Williams in the 2004 Wimbledon final. After reflecting on her life, she landed on the title "Unstoppable" because she believed she had the mindset of being unstoppable no matter the roadblocks in front of her, she said.
Even though her career is much larger than her rivalry with Serena Williams, the rivalry "is the thing that gets picked up" by the media. As in her memoir, Sharapova spoke candidly with espnW about it all, from her failed urine test, to a tennis decision she had to make at age 12, to whether she will ever invite Serena to coffee.
espnW: You open with the story of finding out you failed your urine test via an e-mail from the ITF. You said Mildronate is like ibuprofen in Eastern Europe. How difficult was it owning up to something that you considered an honest mistake?
Maria Sharapova: It just felt like that was the right thing to do from the very beginning. It wasn't even a question that I wanted to be out front and honest about it because that was what happened to me. It was an unfortunate situation.
espnW: At only 12, you had to decide if you wanted to move ahead as a lefty or righty, a decision that could have impacted your entire tennis future. What was that like?
Sharapova: It was difficult because I felt natural playing left-handed, and I still do many things with my left hand. But I started too late to really pick it up and do it really well. It felt natural, but I just didn't have the strength, especially on my serve, to pick it up left-handed.
espnW: Well, you made yourself taller. In the book, you write about hanging from a rod in a closet to extend your height.
Sharapova: My parents really wanted that for me; they saw who was competing and they saw the top players were tall and they really wanted me to be tall. I always did it before I went to sleep, I guess; when you are young and you are asleep, that's when your body's really developing. So they made me do it before I went to bed to stretch out.
espnW: You seem like an internal competitor. The rivalry with you, Serena and Venus started in your mind, as you say in the book.
Sharapova: I just saw [Venus and Serena] through this little hole in the shed. I watched my next 20 [to] 25 years ahead of me, without even knowing it. And that's really where it all began for me, when I was just starting out in the United States and watching these champions practice in front of me, and just not wanting them to see me because this competitor in me was like, "I want to beat them. Those are my competitors." I didn't know that, but that was in my mind. I was in complete awe of them. I was fascinated with how focused they were, and they had this huge crowd around them watching. They were able to zone in and focus on what they were doing without any distractions around them.
espnW: Last week, there was a bit of criticism about the language you used to describe Serena in the book. For example, you wrote that "she has thick arms and thick legs and is so intimidating and strong." A writer from the Daily Beast said your treatment of Serena was racially tinged. What are your thoughts?
Sharapova: [laughs] I think if anyone knows this, I don't have a racist bone in my body. It is very interesting because the book is about 300 pages long, and I describe my final against Serena at Wimbledon, maybe it was 10 pages; it was toward the middle of the book. As the subject line of me competing against Serena has been a topic so many years, ever since both of us has been quite young, it's the thing that gets picked up. But in terms of intimidation and the presence that she has on the court, she is a very confident woman, which she absolutely should be, and she carries herself with that determination and intensity. Of course, that's intimidating.
espnW: But what did you think about some of the criticism about the language you used, like, how some people write stereotypical descriptions when portraying black athletes?
Sharapova: I don't think it bothered me because I know how much respect I have for her. I know what an incredible athlete she is. I say it in the book, she's owned me. There's absolutely no doubt about that in our head-to-head.
espnW: Last thing on Serena: You wrote that you two should be friends. Would you ever reach out to start that friendship?
Sharapova: I understand the topic of conversation when it comes to speaking about Serena and I. There's a lot that's been said. We all influence people in our different ways -- what we've both been able to do and from the upbringings that we had and make it in our sport. I mean, she's in a league of her own with what she's accomplished. And our stories are very different. At the end of the day, I never believed that we should be ranked against each other, and especially off the court as people tend to do these days. I'm in awe of what she's able to do. Not just what she's able to do, but to be able to do it when you already have everything. When you've achieved everything and to want to do it more. I mean, that's special. That's not the headline that people want to see, and I understand that. That's why I don't take it personal.
espnW: But do you think you will ever reach out to Serena and say, "Hey, let's have coffee"?
Sharapova: Look, I think we are very busy in our lives, and I think there's a lot of room for that. We still have a lot to accomplish on the court, and we both have friends from all around the world [in] different jobs and professions. And at the end of the day, this is still a sport and we both still want to beat each other.
This interview has been condensed and edited.