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Tennis •10sBalls Shares Richard Evans Review Of Maria Sharapova’s Book “Unstoppable”

by Richard Evans


You are a Russian man with a 6 year old daughter and $700 in your pocket. You are standing on the curb at Miami Airport at 2.00 am and cannot speak English. The Russian coach who is supposed to pick you up doesn’t arrive. You have never been to America before but you have a 3 year visa and have just left your wife and family behind. If the coach does not appear – and he doesn’t – you know no one and have no idea where to go.


You are, of course, insane. But you are Yuri Sharapov. And you succeed.


Just as Maria Sharapova says, her fascinating and well written book “Unstoppable” is the story of her father as much as her. Those who have covered her career have known the basic outline of her story for years – leaving her mother behind at an early age, training in Florida etc, etc – but most of us never really got to know Maria’s father who, too quickly, tended to be dismissed as one of those crazy tennis parents.


But crazy doesn’t mean bad and, in Yuri’s case, this element of his personality was vital. Only a crazy person would even have attempted to do what he did. And he did it through passionate persuasion and a quite remarkable ability to say “Nyet”.


As Sharapova writes: “If one characteristic defined my father, it was his willingness to say no. He did it all the time. He said no to the easy thing because he believed a better thing would come along. It was stupidity – and faith. He believed in my ability and his smarts. It determined what happened as much as anything. Saying no put him in a position to later say yes.”


In America, just a day after he and Maria had arrived in this strange, daunting and oh, so different land, the Rick Macci Academy in Boca Raton was the first place to a receive a “Nyet” after they had offered the strange couple a place to stay and the chance to hit with Macci who had become known to Sharapov because he was coaching the Williams sisters. Rick was away when Sharapov and his daughter arrived and they were gone before he had a chance to look at Maria. Yuri had not liked the disbelief in the eyes of the person behind the desk. He didn’t like the way they had been greeted. He thought they should have accepted his story more readily – Yes I’ve just flown in from Moscow with this waif and no money – and so off they went on a bus to the only other place Yuri had heard of – the Nick Bollettieri Academy at Bradenton on the other side of Florida.


After more dubious looks, Yuri’s persuasive powers got his skinny little daughter on court with a coach and this time the head man was around. Maria hit with the coach who had been assigned to her and it took him only ten minutes to pick up the court side phone and tell Nick, “Hey Boss! I got something here you have to see right away.”


Bollettieri remembers what he saw very clearly. “You were six years old but you were hammering the ball. It was not just the power – it was your footwork. Your grip. Perfect…of course a lot of that can be taught. The amazing thing was your concentration. You never lost focus, you could do it again and again. You didn’t have all the moves at first but you had the mentality. And that can’t be taught.”


In other words, Maria had what was required to back up her father’s amazing faith in her. The desire, the determination and the mental strength to seize the out-of-this-world opportunity he had forged for and prove him right.


Of course, it was not easy. Sharapova left Bollettieri’s and then returned after a less than happy experience at another Academy and, when IMG and Nike came up with endorsement money, she was sent across country to work with Robert Lansdorp who had made a name for himself coaching Tracy Austin.


Yuri chose Lansdorp because he liked the way Lindsay Davenport played and he had seen a picture in a magazine of Robert working with her.


“Get your ass out on court!” were the first words the gruff Dutch born coach said to her. But Maria was not phased. She writes: “He’s a weirdo but has a soft spot…..He’s obnoxious when you first meet him and has bad moments. But ever since I was young, I could handle difficult people. It’s something developed during my childhood. I’ve always been able to take the best, skip the rest. That’s my philosophy.”


Maria Sharapova of Russia in action against Simona Halep of Romania during their women’s third round match of the China Open tennis tournament at the National Tennis Center in Beijing, China, 04 October 2017. EPA-EFE/ROMAN PILIPEY

It is clear that Sharapova feels she owes the development of her career from prodigy to pro to Lansdorp. She thinks he brought out a dormant talent. “I emerged from those lessons with a new confidence and a new mind. That’s how I made the transition from kid to adult. By fourteen, I was already playing the game I play now.”


From there, Sharapova recounts her rapid rise from not having to buy the cheapest product in the supermarket while her father slaved away at poor paying jobs to the riches of becoming Wimbledon Champion at eighteen and beyond. The tale has been well chronicled but here it is well told.


She does not dodge the drug ban but does not dwell on it. She has stated her case many times now and does so again here. She had been given Mildronate, an over the counter supplement in Eastern Europe, when an EKG detected a minor heart problem just after she had won Wimbledon. “A cardiologist told me to take Mildronate as a precaution during high-intensity training and matches. I was not unfamiliar with it because my grandmother takes it for her heart condition. For seven years I had written confirmation from a WADA-accredited lab that all the supplements I was taking, including Mildronate, were permissible.”


Which, of course, was true — until midnight on 31st December 2015. Then the rule changed but Sharapova and her entire team were not paying attention. They didn’t read the ITF or WADA emails and missed the low key stories which appeared in the press in the autumn of 2015. It was, Sharapova, readily, admitted, a terrible mistake.


So Sharapova continued to take what was now referred to as Meldonium (she had never heard the name before) two weeks after it was banned, on the eve of the Australian Open. If anyone suggests she did that deliberately to cheat, then they are suggesting she wanted to end her career. Why? Because she KNEW she would be tested in Melbourne, at least at the quarter final stage if not before. She had been stupid not to have read the emails but she wasn’t that stupid.


After appealing to get the resulting ban for a positive test reduced by the Court of Arbitration for Sport reduced to 15 months, Sharapova began her return to tennis in Stuttgart in April this year where she was given a wildcard. Since then it has been a struggle, primarily because a series of little injuries have not allowed her to get in a run of continuous tournament play.


But she will not give up. The phrase means nothing to her. The concept has never been an option at any stage of her career, even before she stepped off that plane at Miami Airport as a bewildered but determined 6 year old who placed the utmost trust in her father.


Unstoppable is the story of a remarkable woman, an amazing athlete who has wrung every last ounce out of her ability and has five Grand Slam titles to show for it. It says everything about Maria Sharapova that the only Slam she has won twice – Roland Garros – is played on clay, the surface on which she felt least comfortable in her early years. So she conquered it twice. Just because.


Yuri Sharapov took a risk because, somewhere deep inside him, a father’s instinct said it would work out. His daughter made sure he was right.

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