She’s since won four more—the U.S. Open in 2006, the Australian Open in 2008, and the French Open in both 2012 and 2014—and the professional tennis player eventually launched her own business venture—a line of chocolates and candies called Sugarpova—in 2012. She’s become an example of an athlete with a tight grip on her career, image, and all of her endeavors, whether tennis-related or not.
15 years since that first Wimbledon win, Sharapova is now preparing for her 17th U.S. Open, and depending on her experience in the game as her biggest advantage against her competitors. At Nike’s “Queens of the Future” event in New York, Sharapova joined the next generation of tennis greats, including Naomi Osaka and Sloane Stephens, and some legends, too, like Serena Williams, to inspire the youth players from the New York Junior Tennis & Learning program and United States Tennis Association, with a rotating round of queen of the court, and a quick doubles match.
But just before she took the court to play a doubles match with Madison Keys against Stephens and Simona Halep, Sharapova spoke to W about preparing for competing in the 2019 U.S. Open, and how tennis has changed her perspective on learning on her own and doing what she wants. Here, she reflects on inspiring the next generation of tennis pros, fighting for equal pay in all arenas, and the biggest lessons she’s learned both on and off the court.
How are you mentally preparing for the U.S. Open?
The U.S. Open is always a big deal. I’ve been around the block for many years, so one thing I always have going for me, especially the last few years, is the experience, the knowledge. I think that’s something that’s very tough to attain, and takes a lot of time, so I want to use that to my advantage. No matter where you are in the world, when you end up in New York City, there’s something very exciting about it and there’s something very different. You feel the sports crowd getting behind you, you feel the energy. The athletes always say there’s nothing like a night match at the U.S. Open and I completely agree.
How does use your partnerships with brands like Nike to motivate the next generation of up-and-coming tennis stars?
That comes from being an example. When you’re an athlete, there’s so much more than just doing your sport. There’s so much more that you’re involved with. The inspiration aspect that you’re giving out to the world is on another level. Sometimes you don’t really acknowledge it because you want to be so present in what you do, but you also realize how you inspire so many young girls and boys to pick up the sport, to give it a chance, to learn from it, to mature from it. There’s so many lessons that you learn from sport in general, and tennis is such an individual sport, so a lot of the time you’re on your own. There’s really nothing like it in terms of education.
Would you consider yourself a role model, then?
I realize that I am, but I try not to because at least I think my piece of advice is that you always want to be better than who your role model is. I don’t think anyone is perfect and that’s what makes people special, the things that are not necessarily great or perfect or that they need to work on. How do they find a way to drive themselves to want to get better? I think that’s what makes an individual special.
Who was your role model growing up?
I really looked up to my mother because she was very young when she had me, so we had a really great bond, and besides dance she didn’t do too much sport. A lot of the influence she had on my life was more cultural and educational, and family-oriented. After traveling around the world and doing my profession and working so hard at my sport, there are so many outside lessons that she was able to teach me as well that I was able to incorporate into my tennis life.
What have you learned from tennis that you have incorporated into other arenas of your life, like being an entrepreneur?
Yeah, there’s also learning on your own. When you’re out in your field, you have to figure things out on your own. You have to do what’s in your best interest because in the end that makes things so much better around you. I’ve also learned about teamwork and teams getting together and helping you to achieve your dreams. Like I said, you are just by yourself in your end, but it takes so many people, so much knowledge, so much advice that goes on behind the scenes, and practice that goes on before you step out onto the court. And as you mentioned, yeah, the feeling of being able to inspire others to get into other businesses or work towards something that’s getting your mind off your day job and broadening into other categories that interest and inspire you, and that you can also learn from.
The United States Women’s National Soccer Team made waves earlier this summer by demanding equal pay, which has also been an issue with tennis. What do you think is missing from the conversation around equal pay in all sports?
We can get into many details, but I think at the end of the day I’m happy to see that so many women feel more confident and comfortable about speaking up. They’ve set up an incredible platform for themselves. They’re each champions in their own fields, and I think not only does that bring success and trophies and a bigger bank account, but it gives them a voice. They’ve gained so many fans around the world. I’m so happy that they’re using their voice.
A Visual Retrospective of the First Wimbledon Matches For Today’s Tennis Champions
Rafael Nadal, age 17, during his first Wimbledon competition on June 27, 2003 at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, in London. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.
Serena Williams, age 17, during her first Wimbledon competition during July, 1998, at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, in London. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.
Venus Williams, age 17, during her first Wimbledon competition during July of 1997, at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, in London. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.
Novak Djokovic, age 18, at his first Wimbledon competition in London on 25 June, 2005. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.
Lindsay Davenport, age 18, competing in her first Wimbledon in June of 1994. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.
Maria Sharapova, age 16, at her first Wimbledon competition in London on June 26, 2003. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.
Roger Federer, age 18, at his first Wimbledon in London, England, July 1999. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.
Althea Gibson was the first black woman to compete in Wimbledon in 1950, at age 23. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.
Arthur Ashe competed in his first Wimbledon at age 16, in 1959. He’s pictured here at age 25, competing in the 1968 Wimbledon competition. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.
Steffi Graf competed in her first Wimbledon tournament in 1984 at age 16. She’s pictured here in July of 1987 at age 18. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.
Pete Sampras competed at his first Wimbledon match in 1988, at age 17. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.
Andy Roddick, age 19, at his first Wimbledon tournament in London on June 26th, 2001. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.
Cori ‘Coco’ Gauff became the youngest player to qualify at Wimbledon at 15 years old in 2019. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.
Young pros like Coco Gauff, Sloane Stephens, and Naomi and Mari Osaka have become some of the biggest names in tennis these past few years. Do you connect to them or relate in any way since you were also so young when you started to achieve professional success?
We’re always once young, you know. [Laughs.] We were always once young at some point. Success is determined by so many different things. Success to one person can be external when you’re holding up a trophy and everyone can see you, or it’s something very personal and internal and many people don’t ever hear about it. So, that’s a separate conversation, but I think the younger generation is always going to come up behind you. I don’t think I realized that I as an athlete, as an individual, impacted the younger generation when I was young, because of the example that I set. We’re in a very public sport; your wins, your losses, everything is out on the line. The way that you handle yourself, the way that you carry yourself, all those things—it’s not just about playing the sport itself—are very important.
If you were coming up in 2019, now that there is social media and a much more scrutable public eye, how do you think you’d handle fame and attention?
I’m not sure. I was an only child and I was around my parents all the time, and I still am. I was really in this security blanket, and I think social media is kind of the only thing that’s changed. It’s beneficial, but it’s also difficult for younger generations because you’re constantly thinking about not just opinions, which is normal, but also constantly developing content and showing the world and your fans what you’re doing, and sometimes not doing it on your terms, but doing it based on what other people are expecting of you. I think maybe that would be difficult, but I certainly didn’t have to face that when I was younger.
Do you feel that same pressure now, since you are online?
No, I think because I’m certainly much more comfortable. And I love sharing, there’s nothing that would be out there if I wasn’t comfortable with it. I think that comes with age. It definitely comes with age, and I’m certainly much more comfortable in my skin. With everything, with style, with things that I say, and the time that I spent. You’re not only a little bit wiser, but you’re just experienced in life and you’re able to make decisions that maybe are a little bit selfish, but they make you a better person.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to your younger self?
I would say, there’s always going to be tough times and there’s always going to be rough patches, and people might have expectations of what you do, or you might have your own expectations, but at the the end of the day, you have to go through these challenges because the way that you handle them will really decide how you handle the rest of your life.