The five-time Grand Slam champion, who first underwent shoulder surgery in 2008 for a torn rotator cuff, described her share of dark days to host Bethenny Frankel as pain from that injury resurfaced in the final years of her career.
“I had a physio who spent more time working on my shoulder than I spent on the court in the last few years, because that’s how long it took me just to get on the court,” said the former world No. 1. “I realized the importance of having my body worked on. It was nice but also excruciating because you wake up and are constantly thinking what you have to do for your shoulder.
“It was constant maintenance. There were days where I couldn’t get through practice. You have this team you employ, sometimes five people on the practice court, and your body just breaks down, and I couldn’t even finish practice.”
Sharapova served a 15-month suspension due to an Anti-Doping Rule Violation, and though she returned in 2017 to win a WTA title in Tianjin and reach the quarterfinals of Roland Garros eight months later, a second shoulder surgery kept her off the court for much of the 2019 season.
The 33-year-old credited her team, last led by Riccardo Piatti, with helping her through the toughest times as she made the ultimate decision to hang up her racquets 12 months ago.
“I surrounded myself with individuals who supported me along the way, but it’s hard to make the call to your mom and say, ‘I can’t practice for the next three days because I can’t serve, and I have to do something about it.’ That’s tough on the family and it trickles down. Those elements were just starting to add up.
“I’ve always been fairly stubborn, and that’s taken me to some wonderful places in my sport, but in the end, it can become a detriment because you’re so stubborn to keep going that you lose sight of new opportunities that could be right in front of your eyes.”
Having long compartmentalized the many facets of her life—sport, business, and personal—Sharapova made a seamless transition into civilian life, continuing to pursue her business venture, embracing a passion for architecture, and celebrating an engagement to boyfriend Alexander Gilkes.
“It’s so interesting because, for as penetrating of a sport and my career as it was—and as consuming as it was—when you enter my home or any bedroom, there was no evidence of the sport. There was no racquet anywhere in the corner, no trophy, no photographs.
“I didn’t do it consciously. Part of me just doesn’t like a lot of crap lying around! I have a very clean, minimal aesthetic, and so I never had a lot of photos or memories. They were always in my mind but never exposed.
“I think it explains my relationship because when I would exit my home, get in the car, get to the court and close the gate, it was all business. I put so much focus in, and that was my greatest strength. Anything could be going on in the world, good or bad, and when I entered the court, it was as though nothing existed. I didn’t have time to think. I had to be fast, sharp, smart, work with a team that would share feedback and information that I had to swallow. Sometimes it was critical and tough. I didn’t have time to think about anything else; I was in it.
“But then I would leave, and that was the time during which I would expose myself to business, to art, to architecture, when I would spend time with my friends. I didn’t feel bad about these other interests because I knew that when I would get back to the court, it was important.
“I still feel like that’s my relationship. I know this sport like the back of my hand; there’s nothing I will know better. But I’m also happy to put it aside, and say that this was an incredibly beautiful chapter of my life, and there are other things to come.”
Sharapova, who tags 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams and WTA founder Billie Jean King as her Greatest Athletes of All Time, looks back on her career with no regrets, and emerges with a deep understanding of the duality required to be a woman in sports.
"Did I enjoy winning a championship and doing a photoshoot with the trophy in a pretty dress? Of course. I’d have a hair and make-up team that made me feel like I was a princess. Those are certainly moments I’m going to miss, because you do feel like you’re on top of the world. You’ve just accomplished something in sport and now you’re wearing this beautiful dress.
"I suppose that makes it like two polar opposites, but that’s what made me successful in that world. My priority and what I really, truly believed in was my mental strength. That’s much more beautiful than anything else I could offer."