From the shadow of Chernobyl’s nuclear wasteland to international super-stardom and 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, was a testament to the power of one individual to make it, whatever the odds.
However, today, the 29-year-old Russian’s rags-to-riches story was seemingly at an end when she was banned for two years for failing a drugs test at January’s Australian Open.
Sharapova shot to international fame as a giggly 17-year-old Wimbledon winner in 2004 -- the third youngest player to conquer the All England Club’s famous grass courts.
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.”
Siberia-born 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, she 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 $700 to their names.
“I was living a normal, average, everyday life back in Russia and we had a dream,” she recalled.
Yuri took odd jobs like dishwashing to finance his daughter’s dreams although visa restrictions meant mother Yelena was back in Russia, separated from her daughter for two years.
When Sharapova 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.
She made her professional debut at 14 in 2001 and by 2003 she reached the world top 50. She won her first tour titles in Japan and Quebec.
Then in 2004, the tennis world was turned upside down when her Wimbledon final triumph over Serena Williams made her an overnight international celebrity.
One year later, she became the first Russian woman to be ranked at number one in the world while, in 2006, she won her second major at the US Open.
But in 2007 and 2008, she began her long, on-off battle with shoulder trouble. She still had time to win the Australian Open before a second shoulder injury kept her off tour for the second half of the season, including missing the US Open and Beijing Olympics.
Her 2014 French Open title was another high after a dispiriting injury low. More injury troubles followed before the bombshell announcement of her positive test for the banned heart drug meldonium at the Australian Open—where she fell in the quarter-finals to Williams.
With Williams, she endured her most testing rivalry—on and off the court.
The two famously exchanged personal barbs over their private lives when Sharapova began a two-year romance with Bulgarian player Grigor Dimitrov, a rumoured previous boyfriend of the American.
Sharapova had previously been engaged to former Los Angeles Laker basketball star Sasha Vujacic.
She may have been unlucky in love, but Sharapova hit the jackpot in her commercial affairs. She made almost USD 30 million in 2015, according to Forbes, with USD 23 million of that coming from endorsements.
Sharapova was a brand ambassador for Porsche, Cole Haan and in 2010 signed a contract extension with Nike worth a reported USD 70 million.
“Beauty sells. I have to realize that’s a part of why people want me. I understand it. It’s fine. I’m not going to make myself ugly,” she said.
She has two luxury homes—one in Florida, one in California—and is making a lucrative career as an entrepreneur. In 2012, she launched her own line of candy, Sugarpova, selling 30,000 bags in the first six months.
She acknowledged in Melbourne that she never expected still to be playing tennis at the age of 28, but when she revealed her positive drugs test at a news conference in Los Angeles on March 7, she said she wasn’t ready to leave the game.
“I don’t want to end my career this way,” Sharapova said. “And I really hope I will be given another chance to play this game.”