Like Anna Kournikova before her, Maria Sharapova is a statuesque, blonde, Russian tennis player that models in between professional tennis tournaments; her most popular modeling gig thus far has been an appearance in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue in 2005. The big difference between Sharapova and Kournikova, however, seems to be that Sharapova is an excellent, powerful tennis player, while Kournikova faded from the pro tennis world pretty quickly to model full-time after failing to achieve success on the court.

Born in Nyagan, in Siberian Russia, on April 19, 1987, Maria began playing tennis at the startlingly young age of four, at the encouragement of her father Yuri. When Maria was 7, she and her father packed up and left Nyagan with about $700 amongst themselves and headed to the United States, where Maria picked up right where she left off with her tennis training, and proceeded to roar through various amateur tournaments and events in the USA and around the world. With her winnings from those matches, she was able to bring her mother Yelena to live with her and her father in the USA two years later. (Her mother had stayed behind in Nyagan when Maria and Yuri departed due to financial constraints.) The three settled in Bradenton, Florida, which is where the family currently makes its home.

Maria turned pro at age 16 in 2003, and made an immediate impact by winning the Bell Challenge in Quebec City (singles) and the Japan Open in Tokyo (also singles). Not a bad start for a player that had been playing Juniors tourneys a few months prior. Maria plays a hard-hitting, extremely mobile style of tennis, much like Venus and Serena Williams play. At 6'2" (188cm) and a slim 115 lbs (52kg), she has the range and freedom of movement to return virtually anything hit at her, and she is very rarely deked by opposing players as her range of vision seems to be extremely acute. She can serve at over 100 MPH and backhand at over 90 MPH. She is able to get a positively wicked curve on some of her harder-hit returns, which disorients a number of opponents, and she has a very good eye for where her opponents are, making it seemingly easy for her to deke them with body language and that wicked backhand when the opportunity to do so presents itself.

Maria entered the 2004 Wimbledon tournament ranked 13th in the world in womens' tennis. After soundly defeating Yulia Beygelzimer in round 1, Anne Keothavong in round 2, Daniela Hantuchova in round 3, Amy Frazier (31) in round 4, then plowing through Ai Sugiyama (11) in the quarterfinals and former Wimbledon champion (in 1999) Lindsay Davenport (5) in the semifinals, she arrived at the finals to face defending Wimbledon womens' champion Serena Williams (1), whom she soundly defeated (6-1, 6-4) to become the youngest womens' champion at Wimbledon since Martina Hingis won it at age 16 in 1997. In doing so she captured her first Grand Slam title and in the process, advanced five ranks in the WTA rankings, from 13 to 8. Watching her face Williams was a tennis fan's delight -- two power players truly fighting to win. Both were consistently serving over 100 MP/H, both running all over the court and both keeping the play alive for a long time. I think that in what was the best display of how powerful they both were, Williams actually broke a few strings on one of her tennis rackets after returning a particularly bullet-like serve from Sharapova.

Watching her play is very interesting, though the fact that she is particularly photogenic makes watching her play interesting regardless. She seems very meticulous; she'll pace back and forth in each direction once after a fault or lost point, every time; she'll bounce the ball in front of her exactly twice before tossing it up and serving it; and she always pumps a fist after scoring. Also, as is fairly common among female tennis players, she has a trademark cry/grunt that comes out after every swing of the racket -- kind of a "unnnnAAAAAIEEHHH!" sound. That sound punctuated each of her returns and serves as I watched her demolish Serena Williams in the womens' finals earlier today. Reportedly, the WTA has told her to tone it down a bit, but personally, I think they're overreacting. It's not as though she's Monica Seles (a prolific, loud grunter) out there, and most of the more powerful female tennis players have developed a grunt at some point in their careers.

Though she does have a modeling contract with IMG Models, I don't expect she'll burn out so quickly like Kournikova did. She seems a very strong and capable tennis player, and hopefully, her championship win at Wimbledon this afternoon is the start of a long and fruitful career in professional tennis. Personally, I'd rather watch her play tennis than see her in a "Making of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition" type of thing, as watching her play tennis is far more entertaining and much more likely to send shivers down one's spine. She is the very definition of a highly technical tennis player.

UPDATE! In early March 2016, Maria admitted that she'd failed a drug test she'd taken in January. At the time of this writing, her punishment is pending, but will likely be four years' suspension from the WTA, which is in line with what other performance-enhancing drug users have received. Maria was caught using meldonium, a heart medication that has long been available prescription-free in eastern Europe and Russia. It is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and classified as a performance-enhancing drug even before WADA banned it from professional sports. She claims unawareness that it was on WADA's banned substances list, who, admittedly, made its use illegal only very recently (January 1, 2016, to be precise). It has never been approved for use in the United States, where she is based, but still has family in the Eastern Bloc and travels there frequently while touring; presumably, that's how and where she got it. In what may have been one of the first instances its kind, Maria held a press conference herself to announce that she'd failed a random drug test and took accountability for doing so, saying she'd been taking it for ten years for a legitimate medical condition, but wasn't aware that it was on WADA's list of banned substances. Thus, one of less than five career Grand Slam winners is likely to get the boot for a while, which is a shame, really, because Maria is otherwise an upstanding, positive role model for pretty much anyone. She came from nothing to become one of the greatest tennis players to ever live. If you like, you can watch her press conference. I'll update again when her penalty is meted out.

UPDATE #2! It appears Maria may not be suspended after all, after a thorough WADA investigation determined that she had been taking meldonia for a legitimate medical condition and have confirmed that she didn't know it was a banned substance, which, admittedly, it became only in 2016. Here's Maria's press release regarding the WADA/ITF findings:

Today with their decision of a two year suspension, the ITF tribunal unanimously concluded that what I did was not intentional. The tribunal found that I did not seek treatment from my doctor for the purpose of obtaining a performance enhancing substance. The ITF spent tremendous amounts of time and resources trying to prove I intentionally violated the anti-doping rules and the tribunal concluded I did not. You need to know that the ITF asked the tribunal to suspend me for four years – the required suspension for an intentional violation -- and the tribunal rejected the ITF’s position.

While the tribunal concluded correctly that I did not intentionally violate the anti-doping rules, I cannot accept an unfairly harsh two-year suspension. The tribunal, whose members were selected by the ITF, agreed that I did not do anything intentionally wrong, yet they seek to keep me from playing tennis for two years. I will immediately appeal the suspension portion of this ruling to CAS, the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

I have missed playing tennis and I have missed my amazing fans, who are the best and most loyal fans in the world. I have read your letters. I have read your social media posts and your love and support has gotten me through these tough days. I intend to stand for what I believe is right and that’s why I will fight to be back on the tennis court as soon as possible.

Love, Maria

P.S. My lawyer prepared a short summary of how the ITF process works so I thought I would pass it along to my fans so you too can be aware of what the ITF rules call for.

If the arbitration does not side with Maria, she faces a two-year suspension from playing professionally. She has not played in 2016 as it is; and who knows when the discipline phase will begin.

There has been some public discourse about WADA removing sanctions for users of meldonium who were taking it prior to its ban, but nothing formally announced yet.

Awards:

Too many to list! Try ESPN's page on Maria Sharapova.

Victories (bold denotes a Grand Slam victory):

Again, too many to list! Try ESPN's page on Maria Sharapova.

Some additional trivia on Maria Sharapova:

  • She represents Russia when she plays, but maintains residence in Bradenton, Florida, where she trains at Nick Bollettieri's Tennis Academy.
  • Other than her tennis training repertoire, she keeps in shape by jazz dancing.
  • At age 6, she participated in an exhibition tournament in Moscow alongside Martina Navratilova, who helped get her into Bollettieri's when she arrived in Florida.
  • Plays right-handed, although she is a true ambidexter, and was undecided about which hand to use dominantly until her professional career began in 2003. This explains why she's able to make a backhand return exceed 90 MPH.
  • Speaks English and Russian fluently.
  • Always travels with her father, Yuri, and her two coaches, Michael Baroch and Robert Lansdorp, all three of whom are frequently accused of coaching from the sidelines.
  • As of 2006, she makes about £13.4 million per year, 90% of it from endorsements. As of 2016, she endorses, among others, Porsche, Tag Heuer, the Tiffany, Nike, Gatorade, Tropicana, Canon, Fred Perry, René Lacoste, Cole Haan (she designs clothing and shoes for them as well), Head racquets, and, until her failed drug test in 2016, the YOUTEK IG Instinct model racquet. Her endorsement deal with Nike had been worth $70 million over eight years; her deals with Nike and Porsche were terminated in 2016 with the announcement of her drug test failure.
  • She appeared in the 2005 and 2006 editions of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, and was voted "hottest female athlete" by viewers of ESPN in 2007 and for four consecutive years by readers of FHM.
  • In 2012, she introduced a line of candies imaginatively called Sugarpova.
  • In the 2010s, she's developed quite the rivalry with fellow former Soviet citizen Victoria Azarenka, meeting her many times at all the Grand Slam events, seemingly alternately winning and losing. Azaranka and Sharapova also have taken turns holding the world #1 ranking.

Sources:

http://www.mariaworld.net/
http://www.sugarpova.com/
http://www.wimbledon.org/
http://espn.go.com/sports/tennis/rankings/_/type/2