Somebody tell Maria Sharapova 2-19 does not a rivalry make. And the 18 straight defeats to Serena Williams make ‘Unstoppable’ an audacious choice for the title of her memoir. Pride and Prejudice, sadly, is already taken.
While it’s inconceivable for any tennis book this side of the ’90s to not mention Serena, Sharapova overdoes it: 106 times for those keeping count, including nine times in the prologue. “Serena Williams has marked the heights and the limits of my career,” says Sharapova. “Our stories are intertwined.”
Here’s the thing. The upper echelon of tennis is one of the most exclusive members-only club, where you bump into the same people week in, week out. Everybody’s story is intertwined with everybody else’s. Yet, in her 2009 mid-career memoir On The Line, Serena left rivals largely undiscussed. In Sharapova’s, she is the de facto deuteragonist.
Sharapova’s perception of Serena is the reinforcement of a childhood resolve. She recalls first seeing the Williams sisters at 12, during an open practice session, not from the stands but through a knothole inside a shed. She writes, “I’d never put myself in the position of worshipping them, looking up, being a fan.”
Three years later, at the 2002 Wimbledon champions’ ball, she refused to stand up like the others for champion Serena. “It was as if I were stuck in that chair, staring at Serena through the crowd of people, with a single thought in my head: ‘I am going to get you.’”
She got Serena at the 2004 Wimbledon at 17 to become the fourth-youngest Grand Slam winner in the Open Era, and again at the year-end WTA Finals. Sharapova was hyped as the young pretender who could challenge Serena’s status. She has never beaten Serena since, and it is amusing to read her paint herself as an underdog — “Even now, she can still make me feel like a little girl.”
She is intimidated by Serena’s “thick arms and thick legs” and her being “really tall”, even though Sharapova stands five inches taller. Then, out of the left field comes the revelation. She believes the losing streak is because she heard Serena cry in the locker room. “Guttural sobs, the sort that make you heave for air, the sort that scares you…It went on and on. I got out as quickly as I could, but she knew I was there. People often wonder why I have had so much trouble beating Serena; she’s owned me in the past 10 years. I think Serena hated me for being the skinny kid who beat her, against all odds, at Wimbledon,” she writes.
While she leaves out the war of words and shots at personal lives between the two, Sharapova slips in a few digs. She believes Serena can be distractingly loud (Hi kettle, meet pot!) and tends to fall to the ground upon missing a shot, to show that she has beaten herself rather than been beaten.
By dedicating page after page to her nemesis, Sharapova sets out to do the absurd task of putting Serena on a pedestal while simultaneously trying to knock her off it. Which is a shame because when she is not talking about the feud, the five-time Grand Slam champion has quite a story to tell. The biggest thing the book gets right is that it never threatens to turn into a hagiography, as most memoirs are wont to do. Thanks to the subtlety of non-fiction writer Rich Cohen, she comes across as self-deprecating, geeky and candid.
There’s an interesting aside about Sharapova receiving premier Russian blonde Anna Kournikova’s hand-me-downs, at renowned coach Nick Bollettieri’s “tennis prison” — a possibly inadvertent reference to Andre Agassi’s Open, a much superior effort in which the former world No. 1 called the academy a “glorified prison camp”. While he isn’t cast in a despicable, villainous role like Mike Agassi, Yuri Sharapov is the archetypal tennis parent, the one Sharapova writes about. “The tennis parent is the will of the player before the player has formed a will of her own.”
The series of Dickensian coincidences, though, seem a bit contrived. Yuri is gifted a tennis racquet as a joke. The family escapes Chernobyl and moves into the resort town of Sochi, where Yuri is informed by a “vodka-soaked maestro” that his six-year-old is “Mozart”. Martina Navratilova, of all people, then convinces Yuri to take Sharapova to America, where they sleep on sofas, sneak on to private courts to play tennis and hitchhike with kind, Russian-speaking strangers who drop them off at Bollettieri’s.
Most, if not all, of the above has either already been written about or is par for the course for a competent biography. The book — like Sharapova herself — is at its most likable when it brings up the mundane and absurd, giving us a glimpse into an elite athlete’s idiosyncrasies and insecurities.
Early on in the book, Sharapova addresses the giraffe in the room. Wondering why, at 6’2”, she towers overs her parents, Sharapova offers two plausible explanations, the flimsier being Yuri’s faith in the power of human will. Sharapova leans towards some good ol’ radiation poisoning: “My mother was about to be pregnant with me when the (Chernobyl) reactor blew, drinking the water and eating the vegetables, and continued to do so after she had gotten pregnant, so who knows?”
There’s rawness in her failed relationships. Sharapova broke up with an NBA player because he couldn’t handle her success and with a tennis star because she felt distracted. The message is clear; she is the show. She also lets the reader in on the paranoia, depression and anger after failing the drug test and her subsequent suspension, even though the claim of having missed the memo is implausible.
There are compelling tid-bits about an embarrassing crush on Juan Carlos Ferrero, the quiet strength of her mother and an experimental switch to playing left-handed — all rushed through in favour of Serena. “Someday, when all this is in our past, maybe we’ll become friends. Or not,” she writes.
Therein lies the problem. Reading Unstoppable is that giddiness you get when the seemingly stuck-up classmate sits down at your lunch table. And the frustration when all she does is talk about her crush.