In 2016, tennis champ Maria Sharapova was doing extremely well – she had already picked up five Grand Slams and was looking to add a few more before gracefully bowing out and retiring from the game. Then came the scandal that would change her life. During a routine drug test, Sharapova tested positive for meldonium, a substance that had recently been added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned list.
Consequently, she was given a 15-month suspension from the game. Sharapova is already back in action, but the incident clearly still haunts her as she begins and ends her memoir Unstoppable: My Life So Far with details of the affair.
The book charts Sharapova’s life from her early days in Russia to her struggles in the United States, later triumphs and eventual fall from glory.
The bulk of the book’s charm lies in the introductory chapters, which document Sharapova’s humble beginnings with warmth and humour. A natural talent, she started playing tennis in Russia at the precocious age of four and her father Yuri – a pivotal character in her life – was so convinced that she was destined for greatness that he somehow found a way to get her into the best tennis schools in the United States when she was just six.
Sharapova’s foundling years in America were not easy. She didn’t speak English, her father didn’t have much money and her days involved a steady diet of practice, practice, practice. But even as a child, Sharapova’s steely determination and unwavering focus shone through.
In the book, she says repeatedly that hitting balls gave her purpose and she never, ever got tired of doing the same thing over and over again, although she was just a kid. She also admits that she distanced herself from the other girls in her tennis school, because they would just disrupt her concentration. Indeed, her best friend is a girl who poses no threat to her and whom she only sees occasionally.
As the book progresses, another running theme emerges: Sharapova is obsessed with Serena Williams, whom she has lost to 18 straight times. She mentions her no less than 100 times in this biography and is laser-focused on beating her nemesis.
Many of her interactions with Williams are distinctly unfriendly. Sharapova claims Williams is hell-bent on beating her because she (Sharapova) heard her “sobbing gutturally” after she trumped her in Wimbledon as a 17-year-old. She describes Williams’ arms and legs as being “thick”, which seems like a dig at her physical appearance. Every subsequent interaction seems to insinuate that Williams is fake while Sharapova is apparently as real as they come.
And the latter part at least, seems true. The book’s honesty is so raw that it’s refreshing – Sharapova presents facts as she sees them, like a child with no filter. A lot of times, this makes her sound callous but the upside of her truthfulness is that it gives you an absolute idea of what life is like for a professional tennis player at the top of her game – the single-minded devotion to the craft and sacrifice (Sharapova only started dating at 22 and both relationships fizzled out because of her career) required to make it big.
Overall, the book is generally engaging, if a little stiff and staccato in parts, although that could just be the authenticity of Sharapova’s voice. The bits where she details her wins and losses in excruciating point-by-point detail are a little hard to swallow if you’re not a tennis fan, but that’s a small blip to get past.
The most disappointing part of the memoir, however, comes at the end and deals with her drug scandal – this is where the writing style shifts fairly dramatically. While the rest of the book casts Sharapova as being made of steel, this episode paints her as the poor (read: weak) victim of the system – she even says things like “You can’t plan for bad luck”. It doesn’t sit well, this obvious lack of culpability on the part of a woman who clearly was in the wrong.
That aside, the memoir does give you an enhanced understanding of Sharapova and her unflinching desire to win – or, as she puts it, “I want to beat everyone”. Although I’m not sure her relentlessness is worth emulating.
Because in reading the book, I was left with an unsettling discovery: Sharapova’s entire sense of self seems to be linked with tennis and winning matches. Without it, she seems brittle, even a little empty. I don’t doubt that she will find success in other avenues after she retires – fashion is a distinct possibility as she’s already a noted style icon. But for now, her utter aloneness emanates from every page – Sharapova is so focused on tennis, it’s almost as though she’s forgotten that there’s a whole world outside of the game.
And, honestly, if this is what success looks like, it’s not a pretty picture at all.
Unstoppable: My Life So Far
Authors: Maria Sharapova with Rich Cohen
Publisher: Sarah Crichton Books, memoir