Unstoppable: My Life So Far
By Maria Sharapova
Penguin Random House, UK.
“Despite an injury-prone career, Sharapova has achieved a rare level of longevity in the women’s game. She won at least one singles title a year from 2003 until 2015, a streak only bested by Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, and Chris Evert. Several tennis pundits and former players have called Sharapova one of tennis’s best competitors, with John McEnroe calling her one of the best the sport has ever seen”
Unstoppable: My life so far is a gripping autobiography by tennis star Maria Sharapova. Through the book Sharapova gives honest insights into an athlete’s life and highlights the hard work, commitment and sacrifice it takes to create an international sports star. The book is written in first person and is direct and hard-hitting.
The book chronicles the journey of a father-daughter duo chasing a common dream- that of turning the daughter into the best tennis player in the world. Their synchronised partnership, quiet understanding and mutual respect emerges as an outstanding facet of Sharapova’s early life and career. Other outstanding aspects of her life include her exceptional grit, focus and never -say- die attitude, her relationship with her trainers and coaches; and her love for the sport.
In a nut shell
The book starts with the 2016 Australian Open incident wherein Sharapova fails a drug test conducted by the International Tennis Federation and is banned from professional tennis for two years (later reduced to 15 months). The book then goes back in time to the beginning of Sharapova’s life in Russia and charts her life through various stages; her birth and early years, discovery of her latent talent, her struggles to settle and train in America with her father, her gaining a strong foothold in the junior tennis circuit and gradual transition into a professional sports, the tests and trails of competitive tennis and her continuous fight to reinvent herself and her game while facing unexpected challenges on and off the court (shoulder injury and surgery). The book delves into all these aspects of her life with a wonderful mix of honesty and real emotion which makes for a riveting read.
The last chapter of the book that brings us back to the issue of the failed drug test, Sharapova’s clarification on the matter and the final verdict on the case which clarified that she wasn’t an “intentional dopper”.
While Sharapova was contemplating retirement after winning the French Open in 2014, she states her commitment to continue playing the sport, “till they burn my racket” at the end of the book.
Chronology of life events
- 19th April ’87, Birth at Nyagan, Siberia
- Move to Sochi at 2 years
- Spotted by Yuri Yudkin, 1st coach at 4 years
- Spotted by Navaratilova at a tennis clinic at age 6
- Move to America with father at age 6
- Training in America at
- Nick Bollettieri Academy- asked to leave
- El Conquistador Academy run by Sekou- Left academy because of arm twisting tactics of trainer. Doled out by Bob Cane and stayed at his house for a year.
- Requested to come back to Nick Bollettieri Academy- she was defeating all the Academy’s trainees at matches. It made sense to take her back into the Academy.
- Signed up with IMG at age 9.
- Trained with Robert Lansdorp who transitioned her from a junior player to a professional adult tennis player.
- Mother’s move to USA at age 10.
- String of defeats at age 14 due to growth spurt.
- Entered WTA at 14 years and began playing professional tennis. Played Monica Seles.
- 2002- Youngest to reach Australian Open finals. Reached Wimbledon junior finals but lost. Saw Williams win the professional championship.
- 2003- Turned full-time professional player at 16 years.
- 2004- Won Wimbledon final against Williams
- 2005 – Reached world No.1 spot
- 2008- Yuri(father) and Lansdorp split, Sharapova loses her coach and mentor.
- Separatsd from father as a coach
- 2008- Shoulder injury, rehabilitation and learning to play tennis again
- 2012-Wins French Open (after should surgery)
- 2013- Begins training with Jimmy Connors as new coach. Turns out as inappropriate and is replaced by Sven. Develops positive partnership with Sven.
- 2014 -Won French Open. Contemplates retirement
- Drug Test: fails drug test and banned from playing professional tennis.
- Enrolling in Harvard Business School
- Receives clean chit from ITF
Inspiration in words
Key people in Sharapova surface repeated in the book. Prominent in them are Sharapova’s father who was her driving force, her manager and on-and-off trainer, Sharapova’s mother who played an understated but critical role in her life, Robert Lansdorp a trainer who was instrumental in honing her technique and shaping her game to transition her into an professional player, Serena Williams a seasoned player and daunting opponent who Sharapova faced repeatedly and finally triumphed over.
The book is interspersed with incidents and words that inspire the reader. Having lead an exceptional life, Sharapova has gathered understanding and wisdom through experience. This is found interspersed in the book. Many life lessons are universal and can also be applied to our lives as well.
While she is transparent about her life, its events and the people in it in the book, she maintains a dignified stance even while talking of difficult issues such as her rivals or her relationships with her trainers and her separation from a father as a coach.
Yudkin (Russian trainer) to Yuri (father):
I seemed to be unique, special. Whether I developed into a player would depend on my toughness. By toughness he meant ersistence, the quality that makes you lock in and focus when asked to do the same thing a million times. Yudkin believed that you had to be able to endure a tremendous amount of boredom i.e.you had to be tough.
“Can you develop her talent? It’s a full-time job. It will mean dedicating your life.”
“It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon. She is strong, I know that. But what about the long run? She will have to play constantly, day after day, year after year. Will she detest it?”
Nick (trainer) on Maria:
“You were just 6 years old and you were hammering it. And it was not just the power- it was your footwork, your grip. Of course, a lot of that can be taught. The amazing thing was your concentration. You never lost focus. You could do it again and again. You did not have the moves at first, did not have the strength but you did have the mentality and that can’t be taught.”
At the academy there wasn’t a single lazy day.
Yelena (mother) to Maria:
She said I was never to forget who I was and where I came from. If you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know who you are.
Gavin Forbes(trainer)on Maria:
“That was the thing that really stood out. When you walked on the court, it was 100% focus till you walked off. It was beyond maturity. The level of concentration for a person you age- what were you?10?11? The focus was just unreal.”
Maria on Robert Landsdorp (trainer)
Robert’s practices were pretty much the same every time. That was the point of them. He believed in repetition. Doing the same thing again and again and again. Doing it till its second nature.
Robert was so certain about what he was doing that it made you just as certain. He was a guru. You could feel his presence in your head. It was a voice that said “This is how it should be done. There is no question, no doubt.
It took two years, but Robert remade my tennis game. May be remade is the wrong word. May be he just made me find what had been dormant. I emerged from the lessons with a new confidence and new mind, this is how I made the transition from kid to adult.
He never coached me again. It was a bigger loss than you might have imagined. It was not the flat shot repetition Lansdorp gave me. It was friendship, confidence, it was a kind of stability and balance you rarely encounter. Many great players cite the role that Lansdorp played in their success. And its not technical stuff they mention. You can get that from anyone. It’s the intangibles, the relationship, the sense he gives you that no matter what sort of slump or hole you have fallen into, you will survive because you are a champion.
Robert on Maria’s loss at 1st professional match at 14 years
“That loss told me more than any victory could. Because you did not back off or give in. You kept going for it and going for it. That’s when I knew Yuri was right. You were going to be the No.1 player in the world.”
Maria on several matters
That was my biggest mistake. I was sloppy. That moment of carelessness threatened to ruin everything.
What’s defined my game more than anything- determination and tenacity. Knock me down ten times and I get up the 11th and shove the ball back in your face.
My father believes you have to be tough to hold anything together: a household, a career, even a country.
The early years toughened me up. It explains my character, the style of my game, my on-court persona, why I can be hard to beat. If you don’t have a mother to cry to, you don’t cry. You hang in there, knowing that eventually, things will change- the pain will subside and the screw will turn. More than anything, that has defined my career. I don’t bitch. I don’t throw my racket. I don’t threaten the line judge. I do not quit. If you want to beat me, you are going to have to work for every point in the game. I will not give you anything.
( On the absence of her mother)
Back at training academy, I was on a completely different track. I was on a mission. I never made friends. If you wanted to be No.1 these were the girls you had to beat. Being friends would make that harder.
But how do you deal with a losing streak? That’s the big question-that’s what separates the professional from the cautionary tales. There really is so much to learn from losing than winning-about the game, about yourself. Do you get up when you’ve been knocked down?….. Do you quit? That’s the toughness Yudkin had been talking about all those years ago. No one really knows how they’ll react to disaster until the disaster is on top of them.
(On her losing streak at 14 years)
People think it’s a glamorous life. May be it is. I’m not convinced. It’s confusing and lonely.
I always believed you have to train harder than you play.
Without tennis parents you would have no William sisters or Andre Agassi or me. The tennis parent is the will of the player before the player has formed a will of her own.
As soon as you start playing, you realise its her confidence you have to deal with. Its also her attitude that defeats you. She looks across the net with disdain. Then there is her temper. The best way to deal with people like this – I’ve learnt from experience- is with composure, a maddening composure and stately calm. It drives them crazy.
(On Serena Williams)
In 2004, Navratilova played her last professional matches at Wimbledon. She was 47 and it was her 31st consecutive appearance. Does Navratilova even remember the first encounter? To her it was nothing. To me it was everything.
We went to LA so I could get back to work with Robert. There’s always something else to work on, prepare for, improve. Even the biggest win gets you just a moment of celebration, then its right back to it. The when never stops turning. Stay off too long, and you never get back on.
Knowing and accepting these weaknesses turned out to be the most important part of my development. It meant I could steer matches away from my deficiencies and towards my strength.
As a rule, the task gets tougher as you get closer to the prize.
(In reference to semi-finals of Wimbledon, 2004)
As you get older your game has to evolve. That would be the case even if my shoulder had never been hurt. You have to learn to do consciously what you once did without thinking. If you don’t do this you won’t have a very long career. If you do, you can actually get better as you grow older. That’s why careers of great long- lasting athletes can be broken into phases.
At the beginning so much came so fast for me. I won Wimbledon when I was just 17. I became a star. Sponsors picked me up. I was the centre of ad campaigns and jealousy. I won the Us Open in a black dress at night. And then, one afternoon, when it seemed like nothing could go wrong, everything did- the tendon in my shoulder snapped and suddenly a sport that I loved meant defeat and pain. My shoulder was cut open and repaired, the recovery was long and difficult. For stretches it felt like I had forgotten how to play the game, like I’d never get back what once came naturally. I was lost. I wandered, then slowly bit by bit and by working like I’d never worked before in my life I began finding my way. I learnt to play the old game in a new way. I realised there was more than one way to win a match, and now, 8 years after I took the grand slam at Wimbledon, I made it all the way back. I was in the same place but I was not the same player and not the same person. I saw it all with new eyes and truly appreciated it for the first time.
(On winning French Open in 2012, which she never had until then)
I waited till the last legal word was typed. Now it had been. I guess I wanted the ITF to acknowledge their mistake. Instead I git hedging and hems and haws. But that’s ok, its something experience has taught me: there is no perfect justice at least not in this world.
Sharapova’s biography makes a spectacular read. The reader gets insights into the true workings of a sportsperson’s life- the endless practice sessions, long tours away from home, the intense competition, the physical exhaustion and loneliness, the continuous fight to get better at the game. These are true for all sports persons, but Sharapova’s story become special because of the odds she beat to become No.1. Her story is exceptional because its initially a story of a unique father-daughter team overcoming challenges to enter the game of tennis. It is also exceptional because throughout her life and playing career she has faced her challenges head-on, overcoming them with her grit, focus hard work. Her story motivates the reader to do more with their life, that and makes them believe that everything is possible with the right mid set, guidance and determination.