My generation of tennis fans was already incredibly lucky to grow up watching two of the best tennis players of all time, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, in their prime years.
After a 17-year roller coaster, the glittering and sometimes controversial career of Maria Sharapova has come to an end.
The 32-year-old Russian tennis great bows out of the sport after having won 36 WTA titles, five of which were majors, and several stints as the world’s top-ranked player.
She announced her retirement in a Vanity Fair article, stating that it was time to “scale another mountain, to compete on a different type of terrain”.
Tennis showed me the world—and it showed me what I was made of. It’s how I tested myself and how I measured my growth. And so in whatever I might choose for my next chapter, my next mountain, I’ll still be pushing. I’ll still be climbing. I’ll still be growing. pic.twitter.com/kkOiJmXuln
— Maria Sharapova (@MariaSharapova) February 26, 2020
Sharapova first burst onto the tennis scene as a 17-year-old when she stunned Serena Williams to win Wimbledon in what was only her seventh grand slam main draw appearance in 2004, denying the American a hat trick at the All England Club in the process.
That catapulted her to finish the year inside the world’s top four, and from there she only got better, ascending to the top of the rankings at age 18 in August 2005 and then claiming her second major title at the expense of Justine Henin at the US Open the following year.
She then reached a third major final at the 2007 Australian Open, only to be on the receiving end of a Serena Williams masterclass for the ages (at the time, the American was ranked 81st in the world and went into the new year with questions being asked about her fitness).
That year saw the first of her injury problems, whereby a shoulder injury forced her to miss the majority of the clay court season, though she did contest the French Open, going as far as the semi-finals where she copped a straight-sets thumping at the hands of Ana Ivanovic.
The Russian still finished the year fifth in the rankings – down three places from finishing second in 2006.
She went into the 2008 Australian Open on a mission, eager to atone for her poor showing in the previous year’s final.
The likes of Lindsay Davenport (returning from maternity leave), Elena Dementieva, Justine Henin, Jelena Jankovic and Ivanovic bore the brunt of Sharapova’s dominance as the Russian steamrolled her way to a third major title, her first without dropping a set.
In fact, the only time she was challenged was in the first set of the final against Ivanovic (who went into the championship match a slight favourite) where the Serb was within two points of taking the first set.
However, history will tell us that the Russian won 7-5, 6-3 – and her winning streak continued after the Australian Open, winning 24 of 25 matches before a recurrence of her shoulder injury forced her off the tour for nine months.
During this period, she missed the Beijing Olympics, the US Open and the WTA Tour Championships, and then decided to abort her Australian Open title defence after deciding her shoulder hadn’t fully healed yet.
By the time she arrived at Roland Garros, her ranking had dropped to 126th in the world – but she would battle her way through to the quarter-finals, winning four consecutive three-setters, including in the fourth round against Li Na, before succumbing to Dominika Cibulkova in the last eight.
She then fell in the second and third rounds at Wimbledon and the US Open respectively, but otherwise did enough to finish 2009 in the world’s top 20.
The 2010 season started disastrously for the Russian, falling to compatriot Maria Kirilenko in the first round of the Australian Open, marking her worst performance at a major since 2003.
She would only win one title for the year, in Memphis, and failed to progress beyond the fourth round at the other three majors of the year, though you could argue she was unlucky to have had to face Justine Henin, Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki at the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open respectively.
Additionally, she also lost to Kim Clijsters in the championship match in Cincinnati after holding four match points in the second set, before an hour-long delay ultimately destroyed her momentum.
The year 2011 saw a major resurgence in form for Sharapova, winning her first big clay court title in Rome by defeating Samantha Stosur in the final. That preceded another run to the semi-finals at Roland Garros, where she was beaten by the eventual champion, Li Na.
Better was to come for the Russian in the later weeks, as she reached her first Wimbledon final since winning it in 2004 – only to go down to 21-year-old Czech left-hander Petra Kvitova in the championship match.
She then took out the title in Cincinnati (defeating Jelena Jankovic in the final) before falling to Flavia Pennetta in the third round of the US Open, but still otherwise ended an impressive season ranked fourth in the world. Sharapova was back.
The Russian kicked off 2012 by reaching the championship match at Melbourne Park, first reversing her Wimbledon defeat to Kvitova in the semi-final by way of a three-set win, and then falling to Victoria Azarenka in the summit match.
Despite the lopsided scoreline (it finished 6-3, 6-0 in Azarenka’s favour), the Siberian native was back in the world’s top two for the first time since 2008.
She then embarked on a dominant clay court season, reversing her loss to Azarenka to win in Stuttgart and then successfully defending her title in Rome on either side of losing to Serena Williams in the quarter-finals in Madrid.
Then, at the French Open, Sharapova reached her first final there, again defeating Petra Kvitova in the semi-final, before ending the fairytale run of little-known Italian Sara Errani to finally complete her set of grand slam titles.
The Russian, who was 25 by that point, completed her set in identical fashion to the way Roger Federer completed his set of major titles, with her opponent being someone who’d gone on a giant-killing run on her way to the championship match.
Whereas Robin Soderling got there in 2009 by beating none other than Rafael Nadal en route, Errani’s run to her first major final included upsetting ex-champions Ana Ivanovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova, and title favourite Samantha Stosur in the semi-final.
Sharapova would then bow out in the fourth round at Wimbledon, before falling to Serena Williams in the Olympic gold medal match on these very grounds a month later, settling for silver in the process.
Then, after forgoing her title defence at Cincinnati due to injury, the Russian would reach the semi-finals at Flushing Meadows, falling to Azarenka for the third time in the year, though this time in three sets.
Season 2012 ended for Sharapova with another loss to Williams, in the final match of the year at the season-ending WTA Championships in Istanbul.
Now 25, the Russian was due to start 2013 at the Brisbane International, but pulled out pre-tournament due to a collarbone injury.
Then, at the Australian Open, she won her first two matches without dropping a game, but just as it seemed she would march into another final at Melbourne Park, she’d meet her match in the semi-finals, falling to Li Na in straight sets.
Another run to the French Open final followed, but it would be Serena Williams who she would face in the summit match. Despite a strong start, the Russian fell to her American nemesis once again, in straight sets.
She would later become one of many third-day casualties on what was dubbed Black Wednesday at Wimbledon, losing to the unheralded Michelle Larcher de Brito in the second round. Afterwards, she pulled the pin on her 2013 season, missing the US Open and WTA Finals in the process.
The 2014 campaign started with yet another loss to Williams – in the semi-finals of the Brisbane International – before she was stopped in her tracks by Dominika Cibulkova in the fourth round of the Australian Open, the day after Williams was sent crashing out of the tournament.
At the French Open, Sharapova would not believe her luck after seeing the American crash out in just the second round, clearing the biggest obstacle from her path to a ninth major final, and third consecutive at Roland Garros.
She would defeat Williams’ conqueror, Garbine Muguruza, in the quarter-final, and then Canadian youngster Eugenie Bouchard in the semi-final, before overcoming Simona Halep in the championship match in three sets. Of the ten major finals she contested, that would be the only one to go the distance.
Sharapova would then reach the fourth rounds at Wimbledon and the US Open, losing to Angelique Kerber and Caroline Wozniacki respectively, on either side of losing to Ana Ivanovic in a dramatic semi-final at Cincinnati in which she held a match point in the final set.
For the second time in three years, the Russian would finish second in the rankings, only behind Serena Williams.
She would start 2015 on a high note, defeating Ivanovic to win the Brisbane International, before again falling to Williams in the final of the Australian Open.
Her French Open title defence would come to an end at the hands of Lucie Safarova in the fourth round, before a semi-final showing at Wimbledon ended in yet another defeat to her American career nemesis.
A leg injury would later force her out of the US Open swing, including the year’s final major. Still, she finished fifth in the world rankings after losing to Petra Kvitova in the semi-finals of the season-ending WTA Finals in Singapore.
The 2016 season started with the Russian reaching the quarter-finals, where once again she found Williams too good for her, but then came a huge bombshell that would rock the tennis world.
On March 7, 2016, Sharapova fronted a press conference in Los Angeles to announce that she had failed a drug test Down Under. It is alleged that she ignored an email stating that meldonium, a substance she had been taking for a decade, had been placed on WADA’s banned list.
This ensured that a 13-year streak of winning at least one WTA title (something not even the Williams sisters were able to achieve) would be broken.
She eventually copped a two-year ban from the sport, which was later reduced to 15 months on appeal. Several players, including Serena Williams and Madison Keys, praised the Russian for her honesty, but others were not so forgiving.
Just after her 30th birthday, Sharapova returned to action at the Stuttgart Open in 2017, with her comeback being met with mixed reaction.
While Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Kim Clijsters and Martina Navratilova, among others, supported her comeback, others such as Caroline Wozniacki, Eugenie Bouchard and Simona Halep did not.
Bouchard, in particular, labelled Sharapova a “cheater” who shouldn’t have been allowed back into the game. In fact, shortly after her remarks, the Canadian scored a stunning win over the Russian in Madrid, appearing to show no respect towards the 30-year-old.
Sharapova would not receive a wildcard entry into the French Open, though she would end up missing that event, and then Wimbledon, due to injury.
She then made her grand slam comeback at the US Open where she would be drawn against second seed Simona Halep in the first round. After defeating the Romanian, and future Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin in the third round, the Russian’s run would come to an end at the hands of Anastasija Sevastova in the last 16.
Towards the end of 2017, Sharapova would win her 36th – and final – career title in Tianjin, defeating Aryna Sabalenka in the final.
The Russian then entered 2018 not ranked high enough to be seeded at the Australian Open. She would reach the third round, falling to Angelique Kerber in straight sets.
Later on, at the French Open, she was drawn to face Serena Williams in the fourth round, in what would’ve been their first meeting since the 2016 Australian Open, but the American would withdraw beforehand due to an abdominal strain.
Sharapova ended up getting a free pass into the quarter-finals, but would be beaten easily by Garbine Muguruza, the same opponent she’d beaten four years beforehand.
A first round loss at Wimbledon followed, before she again reached the fourth round at the US Open where she’d suffer her first defeat in a night match – at the hands of another Spaniard, Carla Suarez Navarro.
The 2019 season started modestly for Sharapova, reaching the fourth round at the Australian Open where she defeated defending champion Caroline Wozniacki in the third round, before falling to Ashleigh Barty in the fourth.
Unbeknownst at the time, her win over Wozniacki, who retired last month, would be her final win at grand slam level.
She then missed the French Open with injury, then bombed out in the first round at both Wimbledon and the US Open, the latter to Serena Williams in what would be their only meeting at Flushing Meadows.
It was after the defeat to Williams, her 19th in succession against the American, that the Russian first pondered the beginning of the end.
That end finally came on February 26, when she announced that at age 32, and with her 33rd birthday not far away, her battered body had finally betrayed her and it was time to hang up the racquet for good.
History will tell us that her final career match resulted in a straight-sets defeat to Donna Vekic in the first round of the 2020 Australian Open, after which she said in her post-match press conference that she didn’t know whether she’d return Down Under.
Well, now we know the answer is that she won’t, at least as a tennis player.
As mentioned at the top of this article, she leaves the sport having won 36 career titles, five major titles (two at the French Open and one at the other three majors) and a long-lasting legacy, even if the back end of her career proved to be tainted.
Of all active players, only both the Williams sisters (Serena with 23 and Venus with eight) won more majors than Sharapova, and only Serena has won more prize money.
As for what’s next, well, who knows?
But for now, let the dust continue to settle on what has been one of the most talked-about careers in modern tennis history.
Thanks for the memories, Maria.