From the shadow of Chernobyl’s nuclear wasteland to international super-stardom; from penniless arrival in the United States, without a word of English, to a fortune nudging the USD 200 million mark.
It may sound like the stuff of Hollywood dreams, but the story of Maria Sharapova, the world’s richest sportswoman, is a testament to the power of one individual to make it, whatever the odds.
The ending of the story is now shrouded in doubt after the Russian-born star announced on Monday she had failed a drug test.
She said she wants to stay in tennis—the sport that has made her rich beyond her wildest dreams even as her talent has arguably gone unfulfilled. Sharapova has won five Grand Slam titles, but her great rival, Serena Williams, has 21 and is still playing.
And when she shot to international fame as a giggly 17-year-old Wimbledon winner in 2004 -- the third youngest to conquer the All England Club—no one would have thought that that would remain her only title on the lawns of southwest London.
She would go on to win once in Australia and once at the US Open while claiming two titles at the French Open, despite famously likening her movement on Roland Garros’s crushed red brick as a “cow on ice.”
Sharapova first picked up a racquet at the age of four when she was living in Sochi, where her Belarus-born parents had settled after escaping the deadly clutches of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
Spotted by Martina Navratilova, Sharapova was encouraged to move to Nick Bollettieri’s Florida academy, the proving ground of Andre Agassi and Monica Seles. Father Yuri and the seven-year-old Maria left for the US in 1994 with just a borrowed USD 700 to their names.
“I was living a normal, average, everyday life back in Russia and we had a dream and I had a talent and we moved to the US,” she recalled.
Yuri took odd jobs like dishwashing to finance his daughter’s dreams while visa restrictions meant mother Yelena was back in Russia, separated from her daughter for two years.
When she was nine, the mighty IMG group spotted her talent, funded the USD 35,000 fees required for the Bollettieri school and the young Maria was on her way.