Fresh from an extended European summer holiday, Maria Sharapova is looking at the world with a sharpened vision and a focus on entrepreneurship.
As her 4.1 million Instagram followers can attest, the former tennis pro whiled away much of the summer touring castles in Scotland, catching the Venice Film Festival, indulging in tapas in Menorca and admiring Dubrovnik’s Old Town. It all looked pretty idyllic and Sharapova said so much in a post that read, “An August I have never experienced quite like this.”
Some might say she was overdue. After 19 years on the World Tennis Association Tour, the former number-one ranked player stepped away from the pro circuit last year. Instead of working out for six hours a day and swatting serves at 102 m.p.h., the 34-year-old listened to live music at Royal Albert Hall and enjoyed a mille crepe cake among other nonathletic pursuits.
”I really wanted to explore the world with an entirely new perspective compared to how I saw it before. When I was in beautiful cities around the world for my sport, I was so focused on the competition, recovery and always getting ready for the next match or tournament — packing and unpacking — without a lot of time to really understand, visit, explore and find true meaning in how things were built and done.”
With the U.S. Open underway, Sharapova offered her views about the changing state of tennis, dealing with fame, social media’s double edge and her business ventures. At the time of her retirement last year, Sharapova was a five-time Grand Slam winner with an estimated $325 million in career earnings. The Russian-born athlete medaled at the 2012 Summer Olympics and topped Forbes’ “Highest Paid Female Athletes” list for 11 consecutive years. Injuries and a 15-month suspension for using meldonium, a controlled substance, impacted her court time before she officially bowed out, doing so by penning an essay for Vogue and Vanity Fair.
Adept at sponsorships and business deals, Sharapova’s current roster includes Evian, Rove Concepts, Tonal and others. She recently introduced collaborative furniture with Rove and is interested in working on architectural and interior projects. Sharapova’s premium candy company Sugarpova started as a side hustle in 2012. Her fiancé Alexander Gilkes is also a seasoned entrepreneur, having cofounded the online auction house Paddle8 (he exited a few years ago). Last year, he launched Squared Circles to work with entrepreneurs and incubate up-and-coming brands in consumer goods rooted in sustainability, material science and other areas. The couple routinely talk business, projects and investments, including some that intertwine.
The athlete spoke about Naomi Osaka’s effort to bring mental wellness to the forefront of a public discussion, saying that, “We all need to be incredibly supportive of athletes who are going through tough times in their careers. Naomi is an incredible athlete and a beautiful human being, who has a very long career ahead of her. We all need to respect the decisions that players make at times of vulnerability, when they’re feeling down or not playing their best tennis. To be honest, not many people know what’s going on behind-the-scenes and how players feel. You only see the tennis game and what happens on the court. The more support that we can provide, the better they will be and the better that they will play.”
Having had a respectful relationship with the media, Sharapova also noted they could also be tough especially on difficult days, when you want to focus on the next practice or tournament. “But you still have to show up for the press, be professional, be better and speak about the match,” she said.
As for whether the media’s current interest in her private life is a little tough to take, Sharapova said, “Again, it’s about setting certain rules. Every individual is different. What’s sensitive for one person might not be for another, and vice versa. If you’re an athlete, it’s really about understanding what’s best for you. It’s your career and you have to take ownership. Athletes certainly have the ability to do that today, which is really important.”
Sharapova will attend next week’s Met Gala, though she isn’t about to reveal her designer of choice. Having previously worked with Nike and once dreamt up a pair of Tiffany earrings with Frank Lloyd Wright for a U.S. Open appearance, she is now at work on a fashion project with Evian with “one of the most exciting designers in the world” whom she also declined to identify.
For a red carpet appearance in Venice earlier this week, Sharapova went with an ethereal chiffon gown from Dior that she had seen in the show virtually. “When I saw that dress and knew that I was attending the film festival, I definitely sent them a note and said ‘I would love to wear that dress.’”
Having met Maria Grazia Chiuri a few times (the designer even watched Sharapova compete in Rome a couple of years ago), Sharapova said, “I’ve been a huge admirer of her vision and what she stands for for women all around the world.”
The former pro has not yet decided on a wedding dress. Like millions of engaged couples, she and Gilkes are holding off on setting a wedding date until coronavirus-related travel restrictions ease so they can bring together their closest family members and friends. (Gilkes, whose first wife was Misha Nonoo, is friendly with Prince William and Harry from their Eton school days.)
Off-hours, her style is “fairly comfortable, elegant and not too fussy,” she said. Dior, The Row and Alexander McQueen are a few favorite labels. Partial to styles that stand the test of time, Sharapova took that approach for her tennis dresses, too, routinely asking, “How will I feel about wearing this at a U.S. Open in five years?” was always her mentality, she said.
Pangaia sweatpants and sweatshirts have been her at-home pandemic staples. As for the likelihood of the athleisure trend subsiding post-COVID-19, she said laughing, “I don’t think it will be sweatpants-free. It might be elevated sweatpants. It might not be the whole top-to-bottom sweatpants look. But there definitely will be a part of it that will stick.”
The rise of teenage tennis players like Emma Raducanu, Leylah Annie Fernandez and Carlos Alcarez at the U.S. Open has also energized the sport. Sharapova said she admires the younger generation’s fearlessness, power and the physicality. “What’s nice is it’s been a nice balance with the men and women. Both sides of the draw are seeing so many competitive matches and clashes of the young and older generations. There’s been such great tennis. From a fan’s perspective, that’s also a great sign for the future.”
Players face post-match hate mail, as Sloane Stephens recently disclosed. Sharapova addressed how, if at all, that was a factor in her decision to step away from tennis last year. “Social media is definitely more prominent than when I was playing or when I had started coming up. It’s an entirely new side of something that athletes have to handle.
“I really enjoy sharing my experiences with my fans. Through social media, the real and true fan base gets to learn about you more than you being just on the tennis court. But there’s always a downside. It’s a matter of having a healthy understanding of what relationship you’ll have with social media and really establishing boundaries with how much time you spend on it and how much time you don’t.”