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Interview with Women's Tennis Champion Maria Sharapova

Aired October 19, 2012 - 05:30   ET



ALEX ZOLBERT, SENIOR PRODUCER, CNN HONG KONG (voiceover): She's one of the highest-profile athletes in sports today. One of the biggest stars in the world of tennis. Maria Sharapova has held the title of World Number One on five separate occasions. And, according to "Forbes", she's also the highest-paid female athlete on the planet.

A child prodigy with a remarkable story. It was her Wimbledon victory over Serena Williams at the age of 17 that put her on the map. Her runway looks didn't hurt either. Appearing on the cover of "Sports Illustrated" and landing lucrative endorsement deals in sport and fashion.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Former Number One player in the world and, maybe, soon to be again, Maria Sharapova.

ZOLBERT (voiceover): Today, at just 25, she has nearly 30 singles titles to her name. And after her win at Roland Garros this year, she would complete a career Grand Slam, becoming one of few women to win all four major tennis championships.

This week, "Talk Asia" catches the tennis superstar in Tokyo.

ZOLBERT: Hi Maria, how are you?


ZOLBERT: Very nice to meet you.

ZOLBERT (voiceover): She shares her advice for young players, plus her plans for life after tennis, whenever that might happen.

SHARAPOVA: Want me to retire? That's not happening.

ZOLBERT (voiceover): Coming up on "Talk Asia".


ZOLBERT: Maria Sharapova, welcome to "Talk Asia".

SHARAPOVA: Thank you.

ZOLBERT: You've racked up quite a number of victories, but your first WTA victory actually came here, in Tokyo.


ZOLBERT: And then you repeated the following year. Do those first victories here, in Japan - do they still hold a special place for you?

SHARAPOVA: Oh, absolutely. I think when you're growing up and your wish is to win titles and you get that first big one, no matter how old or young you are, it's such an incredible memory.

ZOLBERT: Let's talk about your personal story, because it's pretty remarkable. Your family was living north of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.


ZOLBERT: And your family fled. And you were born several months later. What - I mean, obviously, you were a newborn, but talking with your parents - what do they remember about that time?

SHARAPOVA: Yes, it was a very strange time also in their lives, as well. Because both of my parents were from Belarus and that's where my mom was pregnant with me and then Chernobyl hit and, you know, they looked at other options and they left to Russia - to Siberia - where my mother's father was working there. And that was kind of the path towards, you know, my life. That's where I, you know, where I was born. Two years later, we moved to the southern part of Russia - little warmer - in Sochi. And that's where I started playing tennis at the age of four.

ZOLBERT: And that story is pretty interesting, as to how you got started in playing tennis. Maybe explain a little bit.


ZOLBERT: Your father became friends with -

SHARAPOVA: Yevgeny's father, right.

ZOLBERT: Yevgeny Kafelnikov's father - Yevgeny being one of the most famous Russian tennis players.

SHARAPOVA: Yes. Yes, well, you know, looking back at those years, tennis was not very big in our country at all. Not many facilities. So the conditions were very difficult and Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who was a big star in our country at the time - especially when tennis wasn't so big - really brought tennis on the map for us. That was our first big star there. And he happened to be from the town where we were living. And my father had become friends with his father. And Yevgeny passed on my first racquet to me, which we had to cut - we had to cut the grip, because it was too long. It was probably longer than I was at the age of four. And that's how I started.

ZOLBERT: And then, we'll just skip forward just a few years -


ZOLBERT: You were, apparently, spotted at a tennis camp in Moscow -


ZOLBERT: -- by Martina Navratilova, who's pretty much the best women's tennis player of all time.


ZOLBERT: So that must have been a bit of a boost for a six-year-old.

SHARAPOVA: Well, that was such a - it was really luck, because there happened to be this exhibition in Moscow, which is a two-hour flight from Sochi. So it was kind of a chance that my parents even decided to go there at the time. I flew there with my father. And I was part of, I would say, 200 kids that attended this clinic. And it was one of those where you just hit a couple balls with Martina and then you, you know, you run around the court and then you pick up those balls and then you get back in line. And who knows if you're going to hit another two balls.

So it was a very unique opportunity, because after hitting that one rally with her, you know, she came up to my father and said that, "This girl has a lot of talent and you should really do something about it". And, at the time, you know, tennis was just not big enough - there's just not enough to really build tennis players. So that's when we made that decision to move to the United States.

ZOLBERT: Some pretty important groundstrokes, I guess. Hitting with Martina.

SHARAPOVA: Yes. I don't know. I don't know what I did -

ZOLBERT: Good thing you didn't hit it into the net, right?

SHARAPOVA: Maybe they were in the net. I don't know.

ZOLBERT: But she saw something and so, then, you and your father took what little you had and then headed to one of the most famed tennis academies in Florida, the Bollettieri Academy in Florida.

SHARAPOVA: Yes. Well, we knew where we wanted to go, but nobody knew we were coming. It was one of those things where we just - we bought a ticket to Miami. It was like the Moscow - Miami flight. We landed there and it's another three or four hour drive, you know, up north to Bradenton, Florida. And we just knocked on their doors. It was like evening time and we said, you know, we want to go in and we wanted -

ZOLBERT: Literally, just went up and knocked on the door.

SHARAPOVA: Just went to the front desk there and said we want to - how do we sign up to be part of the academy? And they were like, "Well, it's a little late, now. Everyone is eating their dinner already is getting ready for bed. Come back tomorrow".

So we went in a motel, came back in the morning, they put me in this group with, you know, 10 kids on a court. And the coach, you know, one of the coaches on court, I don't know, number 32. He saw me play for, like, 30 minutes and then he called over Nick Bollettieri, who was, you know, practicing with other kids on center court and said, you know, "You've got to see this girl". And then, a little bit after that, I got a scholarship at the academy and then I got signed up by IMG.

ZOLBERT: So, obviously, a lot of people believed in you and you could maybe tell that you were on your way to a successful tennis career. And then, at 17, in 2004, you beat Serena Williams to win Wimbledon. Did you think that success would come that early?

SHARAPOVA: Oh never. Not success at that type of level. I mean, I think what people forget is I started that tournament at court number 16, in the back. With a lot less people than on Stadium Court at Wimbledon. That's really how I like to look at things. You know, people like to talk about where your success came from and how it all started.

And people always refer back to that Wimbledon victory. But you got to roll back the tape and rewind to the moments where you found yourself in the backcourts, where you're losing matches, and then hours later you see yourself back on the practice court working on the things that, you know, that got you to lose that match. That's what ultimately drives you to the point of victory at Center Court at Wimbledon.


ZOLBERT (voiceover): Coming up, we find out why this year has been one of Sharapova's best yet.

SHARAPOVA: I was like, this is pretty special. I might have to rethink about my next answer about what's my sweetest moment, because this is really, really special.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you very much, Maria, for coming and joining us here, today.

SHARAPOVA: This is such a fun sport to play. You know, and regardless what happens in the future, whether you continue to play tennis or not, you know one advice that I got when I was very young is that you have to commit yourself to whatever you do in life, whether it's your homework or whether it's practicing out on the court. Being on the arena over there is very special and I hope that many of you get to experience that some day.


ZOLBERT: We see a lot of stories of young tennis players - the childhood prodigy, that sort of thing.


ZOLBERT: And sometimes it doesn't work out so well

SHARAPOVA: No, not at all.

ZOLBERT: Why, in your case, do you think it has come together very well and you're still a great success story?

SHARAPOVA: I think a lot of luck, honestly. You know, for all the successful stories, there are, whether it's tennis or other sports, I think people forget to look at the millions of other stories that don't come through. You go to so many academies in the United States right now, and they're like factories. I mean, everyone's hitting ball after ball after ball and working six hours a day. And it looks amazing from the outside, but sometimes you look at it and you say, "Where is the quality in the work that people are doing?" That gets lost a little bit. And I think that's where talent loses its momentum.

ZOLBERT: What advice would you have for a talented, young 10, 11, 12- year-old who really wants to play professional tennis - what would you say to her?

SHARAPOVA: I think, at that point, when someone wants something so much, there is not a lot that you're going to tell them which will, maybe, stop them or, if you feel like they don't have enough potential. I think it's more about being realistic with the parents and the parents having a realistic vision about their kid's career. You know, sometimes the parents see a lot of potential in their kid, but sometimes don't have enough money. Which is, you know, a huge key in this sport, because it's extremely expensive to raise a prodigy up from nothing. You know, getting that financial help.

But also realizing, if your kid is not good enough, to let it go. That's such a tough decision and I, you know, I honestly think that's why part of our success is because I don't think my parents ever were afraid to go back to Russia and go back to their normal life. You know, they never saw it as a failure.

ZOLBERT: Things did work out pretty well.

SHARAPOVA: They did.

ZOLBERT: You went on to win the U.S. Open in 2006, the Australian Open in 2008.


ZOLBERT: And, you know, really on a high, obviously. But then you came into some injury trouble with your shoulder. What was it like to, you know, have those phenomenal grand-slam victories and then to be sort of knocked back a bit with the injury?

SHARAPOVA: It came a point in my career where I started getting pain in my shoulder. I was unfortunately misdiagnosed and then played with the pain for maybe five, six months where I probably shouldn't have. I made it worse, I got a tear. Had to do surgery.

And it took a year, you know, without playing, for me to come back. And I think the toughest part about that whole time was the fact that I didn't really have too many people to look to, to see who has come back from shoulder surgery. There weren't many at all. And that was tough, because you always look towards those little things that might give you a great perspective. And I never - I could never find that.

ZOLBERT: Well, you have come back and this year marked a big triumph for you - completing the career Grand Slam - winning the French Open in Paris this year. Was that - what went through your mind when you won?

SHARAPOVA: Yes, it was a sweet, really sweet victory. Doing interviews, I always say well, winning Wimbledon at 17, it's like, what can be more special than that? It was so unexpected, I was so young. I had worked, but I never thought that I would be able to achieve that. That moment was incredible and beating Serena Williams in the final, who was defending champion.

There's so many pluses about that victory, but now I finished my last point at the French Open this year and I was down on my knees and I was holding the trophy and I was looking around me and I was like, "This is pretty special. I might have to rethink about my next answers about what's my sweetest moment. Because this is really, really special". And the fact that it was the Grand Slam that, I think - no one really expected me to do well at, let alone win it. So, it was really, really special. And coming from the injury and it being the first Grand Slam that I won that I had never won, you know, I could talk about it on and on.

ZOLBERT: Well, I mean, the French Open has proved, for some people, to be the most difficult one, because of the surface. Because it being on clay, I mean, it eluded Roger Federer for quite some time. I read a comment that you said that playing on clay, for you, was like a cow running on ice.


ZOLBERT: So, yes, I mean, it must have been a great feeling to be able to pull it off in the end.

SHARAPOVA: To go from that to winning the French Open? Yes, it was something I said, I think, five years ago. I had a tough match. I don't know if I won it or lost it. And they asked me about moving on clay and I was like, "You know what, sometimes I just feel like a cow on ice". And those words have haunted me for many years.

ZOLBERT: Let's talk about a bigger picture in terms of the game right now. On the men's side, for quite some time, there's been that sort of top four -


ZOLBERT: -- between Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray. On the women's side, it's been a bit different. It seems that there's a different number one every few weeks, every few months.

SHARAPOVA: Right, right.

ZOLBERT: Do you think that that is hurting the women's game in any way?

SHARAPOVA: Well, I think what the men have is - I don't know when you're going to see that again. It's a pretty special time for men's tennis. That's for sure. The level and the quality of the tennis that the top four are playing on a week-in, week-out basis is - it's incredible. And that's something that we're going to look at 10, 20 years from now. And we're going to be saying this happened. And I think, in a way, we're taking it for granted.

In the women's tennis, there's certainly more opportunities. There's more opportunities to win Grand Slams and to get to number one. If that's a good thing? If you're comparing it to the men - it's tough to compare, definitely. But I'd say the quality of the tennis, when you look at my matches maybe four or five years ago - I would go into a tournament and I would say - I'd get there a couple days before and treat the first rounds as my practice days. Now, that's not happening. You have to go to the tournament and you have to be ready to play a pretty solid opponent. It's a much more physical sport than it has been.

ZOLBERT: Interesting. I want to ask you about something that I was just watching the matches going on here, today. That I've noticed women's tennis is getting a bit loud. In terms of the grunting, the hitting the ball the - what's behind that? Is it just part of the game? Is it something that you think about? Is it intimidation? Is it just a natural instinct?

SHARAPOVA: Well, for me, it started from when I started playing tennis. And it wasn't like somebody taught me that or told me to hit the ball a certain way or grunt in a certain way. It was like automatic. And I think, when you start something from a young age and you continue with it, at a certain point, when someone tells you, well you probably, you know, should stop, or you can't do that, it's like changing your grip on your forehand in the middle of your career. And if something's working for you, why would you do that?

So it's an interesting - I mean, it's an issue that's been brought up for so many years, now. That I've heard about over and over again. So it's really nothing new for me. But, you know, the WTA Tour has taken a stand on it and they are encouraging the academies and the coaches around the world to enforce that from a younger age. You know, so they work on a breathing pattern and they continue that as they grow and develop their game. Instead of having to stop something in the middle of their career.


ZOLBERT (voiceover): Coming up, the tennis superstar reveals why her sweet tooth triggered her latest off-court venture. And why that doesn't mean she's done on the court just yet.

SHARAPOVA: And I'm like, "So what?" I mean, what do I do now? You want me to retire? That's not happening.




SHARAPOVA: It's really great to be back to somewhere - to a place that's really special in my heart.

One of the most important things, for me, is to get the children to be active and to go outside and play sports. And not just tennis. You know, they might like other sports. I know hockey is very popular in the winter and figure skating. And I really hope to bring that ambition and to bring out the social skills of being outdoors. Because a healthy lifestyle is one of the most important things.


ZOLBERT: Let's jump to something that I know is very close to your heart. You've done a fair bit of charity work around Chernobyl.


ZOLBERT: And, you know, giving back to the affected areas around the nuclear plant. Talk a little about that - why it's so important to you.

SHARAPOVA: Well, it was a special story because of how I was born and my parents being in Belarus when my mom was pregnant. You know, me being born in Russia because we had to leave Belarus because of Chernobyl happening around that time. So I feel like I'm very connected in a way where I don't know what would have happened if I would have been born in Belarus. Would I be here in this chair? Would I be playing tennis? Would I be healthy?

So I started working with the United Nations five or six years ago. And my first goal at that time was really raising awareness in the Chernobyl-affected areas in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Because the disaster happened 1987. And I think people around the world tend to forget what a huge influence this was for so many people that, until this day, health is not great. The economy is terrible in those regions. And not many people are getting help, you know, from the outside world.

And it was interesting to see the effects of what happened here, in Tokyo, last year. And coming back to this tournament, seeing how the people were really affected by what happened and how the world really came to the rescue in a way. It was really incredible. I think, looking back at 1987, I don't think there was so much awareness about what had happened.

And that was - it was so nice to see that so many people had come together. And my part in this is very small. It's, you know, I would love to really have my hands on it when I'm done with my career, because there's nothing like being in those areas, being hands-on with the people.

ZOLBERT: I want to ask you about some other ventures that you have going on right now. A slight turn - "Sugarpova"?



SHARAPOVA: Sugarpova - I thought it was brilliant. I thought it was so funny and creative. Since I've always had a sweet tooth, I've always wanted to find myself in the candy business somehow. And this passion for gummies and the name just all kind of came together.


SHARAPOVA: Well, I've been really fortunate to play tennis for my whole career. But it's brought me so many great opportunities. You know, things off the court that I get to come from practice and I get to put my brain on and my thinking hat on and say, "I want to explore these different areas". And it's fun because I feel like I have my hands in things that I'm not exactly great at, but I'm able to learn and -

ZOLBERT: Challenging yourself in a different way.

SHARAPOVA: Yes, I challenge myself in business-related areas where, you know, I never went to business school, and I never went to design school -

ZOLBERT: You didn't have time for business school?

SHARAPOVA: No, I didn't have time for business school. But I'll tell you, meeting - I have so many meetings with so many of my brand partners. And I learned so much more in these meetings. I mean, listening to these people, I mean, whether it's advertising, whether it's just from something - creating an event, creating a product - I have so much education about that.

And Sugarpova came about just with the name. It was thrown out to me in a meeting I had with my manager and I thought it was funny and brilliant and I started laughing and I have a huge sweet tooth. And I put the two together and I was like, "We need to do gummies". You know, gummy bears and sour worms.

So we have 12 different products right now and we just launched it during the U.S. Open. It's going - it's going to be global next year, which is very exciting. And it's - when I think about it, whenever people talk about it, it's candy. You know, it's fun, it's young, and free. And I think that's why I'm having so much fun with it.

ZOLBERT: And you've also been doing design work as well. Is this partly preparing for life after tennis and trying to sort of think, maybe, further down the track?

SHARAPOVA: Yes. I definitely have never seen myself empty-handed when I finish tennis. And I'm not a person that likes to come home and just sit on the couch for days on end and not do anything. I get very antsy. I want to put my hands in things. I want to brainstorm ideas. I always - I look now and I'm like, "Oh we have deadlines for Nike. I've got to sign off on those colors and materials. You know, where's that package I'm supposed to - working on my next Cole Haan collection. Where are those samples? I haven't received them yet".

You know, the Sugarpova stuff I've worked on for the last two years and now it's really about getting it out to the world. There's not really much that I can do right now. But it's so much fun.

ZOLBERT: What is there left that you still want to accomplish?

SHARAPOVA: Oh, I want to win more Grand Slams. You know, I want to be number one. You know, those are - when you have those moments of success and when you have the feeling of winning those big ones, you want that again. You know, someone said in the press conference after I won the French Open, I mean, "Now you have everything. You have the four Grand Slams, you've been number one, you know, you've had this tremendous amount of success". And I'm like, "So what? I mean, what do I do now? You want me to retire? That's not happening.

I have so much energy and passion for what I do and there's no doubt that there are days where you wake up in the morning and your body's just not into it and you call up your coach and like, "Buddy, just take a break today". You know, let me have a breather. But then you go out on the court, you work, and you work towards those moments where you're lifting the trophy and you're like, "What else could I be doing right now"?

ZOLBERT: Maria Sharapova, thanks so much.

SHARAPOVA: Thank you.