Maria Sharapova was a transcendent star in tennis from the time she was a teenager, someone whose grit and groundstrokes earned her a career grand slam and whose off-court success included millions of dollars more in endorsement deals than prize money.
And yet, Sharapova walked away from her sport rather quietly on Wednesday at the age of 32, ending a career that featured five major championships, time at No. 1 in the WTA rankings, but also a 15-month doping ban and plenty of problems with her right shoulder.
HIGHS AND LOWS: Maria Sharapova's turbulent tennis career
There was no goodbye tournament, no last moment in the spotlight, for someone so used to garnering so much attention for so long, with or without a racket in hand.
“I've been pretty good in the past, balancing my time with my sponsors with my tennis, because I know my priority. At the end of the day, what I love doing is competing, and that's where my heart is at: on centre court,” Sharapova said in a 2006 interview with The Associated Press right before that year's US Open.
“There are a couple of sides of me,” she said then. “There's the Maria that's a tennis player. There's the Maria that is a normal girl. And there's the Maria who's a businesswoman. And that's where the 'Maria Sharapova brand' comes into play.”
She lost the last four matches she played at major tournaments, with first-round exits in her past three appearances, including at the Australian Open in January. That turned out to be the last match of her career and made her 0-2 this season.
In an essay written for Vanity Fair and Vogue about her decision to retire, posted online Wednesday, Sharapova asks: “How do you leave behind the only life you've ever known?”
She disclosed that she “had a procedure to numb my shoulder to get through the match” a half-hour before walking on court for a first-round exit at last year's US Open, writing: “I share this not to garner pity, but to paint my new reality: My body had become a distraction.”
Sharapova burst onto the tennis scene at 17 by upsetting Serena Williams to win Wimbledon in 2004.
She would beat Williams again at that year's season-ending tour championship to improve to 2-1 against the American - and never won another one of their matchups, dropping the next 19 in a row.
Powerful at the baseline, and famous for a never-give-up attitude, Sharapova reached No. 1 for the first time at 18 in 2005.
After adding her second major trophy at the US Open the following year, she collected an Australian Open title in 2008, and then won the French Open in 2012 and 2014.
Sharapova is one of only six women in the professional era to win each major tennis title at least once. She made 10 Grand Slam finals in all, going 5-5; the last came in 2015 at the Australian Open, where she was the runner-up to Williams.
At the 2016 Australian Open, where Williams beat her in the quarter-finals, Sharapova tested positive for the newly banned drug meldonium.
After initially being given a two-year suspension, Sharapova appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which reduced the penalty, ruling she bore “less than significant fault” in the case and could not “be considered to be an intentional doper.”
Since returning from that suspension in 2017, Sharapova managed to reach only one slam quarter-final.
Her 6-3, 6-4 loss to Donna Vekic at Melbourne last month sent Sharapova's ranking tumbling outside of the top 350 - she is 373rd this week.
Asked after that defeat whether it might have been her last appearance at the Australian Open, Sharapova repeatedly replied with, “I don't know.”
A little more than a month later, she told the world she was done with her playing career.
“Tennis showed me the world - and it showed me what I was made of. It's how I tested myself and how I measured my growth,” Sharapova wrote on Twitter on Wednesday.
“And so in whatever I might choose for my next chapter, my next mountain, I'll still be pushing. I'll still be climbing. I'll still be growing.”
Tennis showed me the world—and it showed me what I was made of. It’s how I tested myself and how I measured my growth. And so in whatever I might choose for my next chapter, my next mountain, I’ll still be pushing. I’ll still be climbing. I’ll still be growing. pic.twitter.com/kkOiJmXuln— Maria Sharapova (@MariaSharapova) February 26, 2020
‘Rivals won’t shed any tears’
Sharapova will leave behind a complicated legacy, with the world’s media labelling Sharapova as the ‘ice queen’ of tennis who ‘rivals won’t shed any tears over’.
“There will be plenty of people around the world – especially those involved in the promotion of women’s tennis – who will miss Maria Sharapova, but the news of the 32-year-old’s retirement is unlikely to cause too much sadness in the locker room,” Paul Newman of The Independent wrote.
“Sharapova once told The Independent that she preferred to spend as little time as possible in the locker room. ‘It’s my least favourite place in the world,’ she said. ‘I do my job at the site. I play my matches. I do what I have to do and I prefer to live my life away from the site rather than talk tennis all day.’”
Kevin Mitchell of the Guardian wrote: “The 32-year-old Russian, who won five grand slams and could freeze a room with her aloof grandeur, will be remembered as the ice queen of the sport, respected more than loved inside the game.”
“She nonetheless was a media darling from the moment she beat Serena Williams to win Wimbledon when only 17 until the fading days of her career when meaningful victories for the world No. 373 were distant memories.”
Novak Djokovic hailed Sharapova as a “legend” with “the mind of a champion”.
“Her impact on the sport, not just women's tennis, but tennis in general, was great. It still is great,” said World No.1 Djokovic in Dubai where he made the quarter-finals on Wednesday.
“She's a very smart girl, someone that I know very well for a long time. She has the mind of a champion, someone that never gives up. She's shown that especially in the last five years.
“She had a lot of obstacles and difficulties, especially with her injuries and everything that she had to endure in order to give herself at least another chance to play competitive tennis.
“For someone that has won five Grand Slams and has been No. 1 of the world, a legend of the sport. She should be proud of everything she has achieved.”
US legend Billie Jean King said Sharapova had been a “great champion” ever since becoming an overnight sensation.
Petra Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon winner, who defeated Sharapova in the 2011 final at the All England Club, praised the Russian's “hard work and fight”.
Men's World No.6 Stefanos Tsitsipas, who was only five when Sharapova won Wimbledon in 2004, said many of the Russian's rivals can only be envious of her success.
"I think many people are jealous of the career that she had," said the Greek, also playing in Dubai this week.
"Obviously she was behind Serena, another great athlete. I would say after Serena she's probably the best after her.
"She had a really good career with great victories, great achievements in tennis. I think she added a lot to our sport."
WTA chief executive Steve Simon added: "She will be greatly missed by her millions of fans around the world, but I know this will also mark an exciting new beginning for Maria as she now focuses on her many business ventures, charitable activities and other outside interests."
with AAP and Reuters