Unstoppable: My Life So Far
David Foster Wallace, a competitive tennis player in his youth, once wrote that “Top athletes are compelling because they embody the comparison-based achievement we Americans revere—fastest, strongest—and because they do so in a totally unambiguous way. . . . Plus they’re beautiful. . . .” Thus their “ghost-written invitations inside their lives and their skulls are terribly seductive for book buyers.” Unfortunately, he concluded, “these autobiographies rarely deliver.”
So it is, more or less, with Maria Sharapova’s Unstopppable. Here is a multiple Grand Slam champion and global celebrity; tennis fans already know the outlines of her life. With her father, she left everything, including her mother, to go to the United States just before she was seven years old to pursue tennis glory. She won Wimbledon at 17 and, despite a serious shoulder injury, has collected a truckload of major trophies in 13 years on the pro circuit.
As a winner and a 6-foot-2 inch blond beauty, she signed numerous lucrative endorsement deals. Then suddenly in 2016, she was sent into 15-months of purgatory by tennis authorities for using a banned drug that Americans never heard of but that Russians take almost like ibuprofen, according to Sharapova. It only recently had been put on the tennis no-no list; she had been using as prescribed for many years. It is not a steroid. Sharapova claims it was banned because so many East Europeans take the drug, tennis officials figured it had to be bad.
Unstoppable should be a terrific book. That it is not has to do with repetition, more than anything else. The first pages tell of her shock at learning of her failed drug test; the final pages repeat some of this almost word for word. Stories of her early childhood and first coach in Russia are retold so often they make the book seem padded. The fact that her serve was never as powerful after her shoulder operation, forcing her to concentrate on other parts of her game is likewise repeated. Her paeans to her mother Yelena and her father Yuri Sharapov, and to one particular coach, Robert Lansdorp, are numbing in their frequency.
Sharapova obviously learned a few things from Andre Agassi’s Open, an unsparing memoir that has become the gold standard for this kind of title. Like him she chose an excellent nonfiction writer, Rich Cohen, as her collaborator. Though not unsparing, Unstoppable is revealing.
For one thing, she says she was christened Masha, but in English it sounded too close to Marsha, which she hated, so she told people to call her Maria. This is strange, since in Russian Masha is the diminutive of Maria. Whatever.
At Nick Bollettieri’s tennis academy in Florida, she sometimes wore hand-me-down clothes from Anna Kournikova, then the reigning blond Russian youngster. When Maria was initially “kicked out” of the Bollettieri program for being too young, she writes that her father blamed Kournkikova’s mother, who wanted no Russian competition for Anna, five years older than Maria.
Later a scholarship brought Maria back to Bollettieri’s academy. She didn’t much like it. She writes that the place was like a prison and the other girls were rich spoiled brats. Her scholarship? “We were the advertisement. We attracted the deluded, wannabe tennis parents.”
Sharapova is famously standoffish when among other pro women on the tennis tour. “Before I even go out onto the court, some of the other players are intimidated. . . . They know that I am strong. I have no interest in making friends on the battlefield. If we are friends, I give up a weapon.”
There is one player who outplays her in the intimidation game: Serena Williams. Serena looms as the bogeywoman who stalks the Russian throughout this book—and her life.
When they first landed in Florida Maria’s dad approached an academy where the Williams sisters trained. (Coach Rick Macci was rude and they wound up with Bollettieri instead.) At 14 in 2002 Maria, as the junior female runner-up at Wimbledon, was invited to the Wimbledon ball. It was the same year that Serena won her second singles title. She was sitting with other juniors (“like the kids’ table at a wedding”) as Serena made a grand entrance. Everyone stood, but Maria remained seated. She had “a single thought in my head: ‘I am going to get you.’”
She describes Serena’s “physical presence” as “much stronger and bigger than you realize watching TV. She has thick arms and thick legs . . . and tall, really tall. (For the record, Serena is four inches shorter than Maria.) She looks across the net with something like disdain.” Serena is unafraid to scream, to throw her racket. “She behaves as if she is the only player out there, the only person who counts. And you? You are a speed bump. You are a zero.”
Sharapova vanquished Serena for the Wimbledon trophy in 2004. Maria was ecstatic. Serena was devastated and sobbed in the locker room. Maria is convinced that Serena has hated her ever since for hearing her cry. And has punished Maria by beating her every time for the last dozen.
Sharapova’s boyfriends typically have been public knowledge. She rues the fact that so many men, like her one-time fiancé Sasha Vyjacic, a Slovenian basketball player, are threatened by her success and celebrity. As for her romance with the Bulgarian tennis star Grigor Dimitrov, she has some sweet things to say about watching him “shift into manhood” while they were together.
Unfortunately Unstoppable does not venture much about Sharapova’s business dealings. She mentions that she took a short non-degree course at Harvard Business School during her doping ban. Maybe she wants to be competitive in money-making again because she’s no longer the richest female athlete in the world; that ranking belongs to—you guessed it—Serena Williams.