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Not backing down

Madhu Jawali Nov 19 2017, 2:35 IST

In March 2016, Maria Sharapova announced in a press conference that she had tested positive for Meldonium, a banned substance by the World Anti-Doping Agency. The tennis diva was banished for over a year, many sponsors suspended their lucrative contracts with her, her peers called her a cheat, and at 28, an age where you are closer towards your retirement than the start, it could have dispirited many from continuing playing. But not Sharapova. She served out the ban, came back and has even won a WTA title now.

Maria Sharapova's memoir Unstoppable is perhaps an apt title for her story. Not so much because no one seems to stop her from winning (her win-loss record against Serena Williams is a dismal 2-19) but because nothing seems to stop her from doing what she loves the most, and that's playing tennis.

Unstoppable is a compelling read from start to finish that captures her journey from Sochi, a tennis outpost then, in Russia, to becoming arguably the most famous female sportsperson of her time. The path to realising her dream of becoming the "best tennis player in the world" was strewn with many hurdles though - difficulties that could have snuffed her ambitions, challenges that could have made her wonder if it's all worth the trouble.

Sharpova, however, couldn't have completed her journey to stardom without her father Yuri Sharapov who, as a 28-year-old, leaves his wife and the rest of the family behind, sacrifices his relatively comfortable life in Russia and takes off to the US with just $700 in his pocket to give a shape to his six-year-old daughter's talent. "It's also just the story of a girl and her father and their crazy adventure," Sharapova describes it aptly.

Today, Sharapova is reportedly worth more than $120 million, but she and her father had to lead hand-to-mouth existence for many years in the USA till they found a reputed sports management company to manage her. With no knowledge of English and no connections in an alien country, Yuri had to struggle for everything - from finding a job to getting shelter to stay and courts to practice.

He made Sharapova the breakfast, he got her ready, took her to courts, hit balls with her, read tennis books to learn the game, slept on a sofa, worked at construction sites despite a debilitating back€ Sharapova's career is as much about her passion as it is about her father's. "At times, I could not tell his dreams from my own. Or his dreams became my dreams," she writes revealingly.

Along the way, the father-daughter duo comes across a few good Samaritans. Like the Poland couple who drive them to Florida after listening to their story; like Bob Kane, a tennis father whom Yuri befriends at a tennis academy, who allows them to stay at his home for nearly a year after they are virtually thrown out by their landlady for not being able to pay the rent.

In between Sharapova is taken in and kicked out of Nick Bolletieri's famed academy in Florida because of rumours that Yuri had in fact kidnapped the girl and brought her here. It's here that Sharapova meets another Russian star, Anna Kournikova. "For years," Sharapova writes, "most of my clothes were hand-me-downs, skirts, shorts and shoes that once belonged to Anna Kournikova."

Though they eventually get invited back again by Bolletieri, in the intervening period Sharapova is forced to train at Sekou Bangoura who withholds Yuri's travel documents so that he can control his daughter.

It's almost legendary now like how Sharapova is "unlikable" in the players' locker room, like how she has few friends on the women's tour. No one sympathised with her when she was caught for doping and some openly criticised her reintegration into the game through wild cards once she served the ban. Sharapova feels it's this persona, of not being emotionally attached with fellow players, that's her biggest edge. "I was not friends with the other girls because that would make me softer, easier to beat."

While she doesn't have many friends, her rivalry with Serena Williams too is equally iconic, though the American, as Sharapova herself puts it, has "owned" the Russian every time they have clashed in the last one decade. Only twice Sharapova has beaten Serena and one such instance was in 2004 when they met at the Wimbledon final. Since then it's been Serena all the way.

Sharapova feels Serena hasn't forgiven her for beating her "against all odds" and overhearing her private moment of grief in the change room after the defeat at Wimbledon. "I think she hated me for seeing her at her lowest moment. But mostly I think she hated me for hearing her cry. She's never forgiven me for it."

After the chronicling of her achievements, Sharapova ends her book in the way she starts it - her fightback from ban. If earlier she was only concerned about the finish line and as to how it would all end, the ban, according to her, has only strengthened her resolve to keep playing as long as she can. " ...Until they take down the nets. Until they burn my rackets. Until they stop me. And I want to see them try."

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