Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon title as a teenager a decade ago
She was underdog against then six-time grand slam champion Serena Williams
Now both are favorites to win prestigious grass-court title in 2014
Russian has built a successful business empire since her maiden slam success
It is 10 years since Maria Sharapova became the darling of Wimbledon’s hallowed Center Court.
Just 17 and with a mere six grand slam appearances to her name, she was a huge underdog against Serena Williams – then already a formidable force in women’s tennis.
But Sharapova did the unthinkable, demolishing the defending champion and delighting the crowd, as the smiling teenager opened up her mobile phone on court to contact her mother.
It was “the jump start of my career, where it all began for me,” says the first Russian woman to win Wimbledon.
“To think back that I was holding that trophy as a 17-year-old girl is really special. It really makes me feel really happy inside when I look back on those years,” Sharapova told CNN’s Open Court ahead of this week’s return to London’s hallowed grass courts.
“Of course it was a little bit of a blur, so young, I was in this incredible dream, this incredible run to the finals. And then winning it, it takes a while to realize, ‘Yes, I’ve done it, I’ve accomplished that, I’ve won Wimbledon.’ “
A decade later, the two women are again favorites to win Wimbledon – even if the grass surface has not always proved a happy stomping ground for Sharapova in the intervening years.
She has reached the final just once since those heady days in 2004 – losing to Czech surprise package Petra Kvitova in 2011 – and made a shock second-round exit last year to Portugal’s 131st-ranked Michelle Larcher de Brito.
Meanwhile, Williams has won three more championships in London in the past decade.
The dream for many fans is of a repeat Sharapova-Williams final showdown, but last Friday’s draw means they could meet in the last eight.
“For both of us 10 years later to still be grinding, and working, and loving what we do – I think it’s really inspiring for a lot of people around the world because we’ve gone through a lot in those years,” says Sharapova, who won her fifth grand slam title at this month’s French Open, while Williams exited early.
“We’ve battled through injuries, through losses, through wins and we’re still there.”
Baby-faced teen to sports star supreme
Right now, Sharapova’s confidence is sky-high – though it wasn’t always the case.
The five-time grand slam winner sacked coach Jimmy Connors last year after just one match together, which she lost.
Her new partnership with Sweden’s Sven Groeneveld appears to be working out a lot better; in Paris she regained the title that Williams took from her the previous year.
But it was her first Wimbledon win that really set Sharapova on her way to global superstardom.
Within a week she was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and today banks about $30 million a year, of which barely a fifth comes from on-court prize money thanks to lucrative sponsorship deals with the likes of Nike and Head.
It makes her the world’s highest-paid female athlete on Forbes’ list.
“No matter how prepared you may be, I actually think it’s better not to know what will happen,” she says of her Wimbledon win.
“Because everything that comes your way seems so better and so much more when you don’t have expectations and you have incredible opportunities,”
“I look back and I go, ‘Wow, I was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 17-year-old girl.’
“I was not naive but I didn’t know how cool these things really were and I think that is why I kept myself really grounded, because I was happy and I smiled and I had a great time doing those other things.”
And with fame, came intense media scrutiny.
Today, Sharapova’s every move on and off the court is followed by the press – from her burgeoning business empire to her blossoming relationship with fellow tennis player Grigor Dimitrov, who won the Wimbledon warmup tournament at London’s Queen’s Club last week.
The Bulgarian – nicknamed “Baby Fed” after comparisons with men’s legend Roger Federer early in his career – credited partner Sharapova for the victory.
She appears similarly enthused by the 18-month romance.
“He’s so talented out on the court and so smart at what he does. It’s really inspiring to watch him play – even when he doesn’t have a good day and loses, I am really inspired by what he is able to produce out there,” she says.
“It’s really fun, we enjoy watching each other play. It is also always nice to have good company, that understands what you go through, the tough and the good. To be able to share that, I am certainly lucky.”
In the last decade Sharapova has become a lucrative brand in her own right, signing a three-year advertising deal with Porsche last year among her many endorsements, and launching her own confectionery called Sugarpova.
Where does this business drive come from?
“I am actually really scared of doing nothing,” she says.
“Because all my career, all my life I’ve woken up, made my tea or coffee and then am ready to do something, to commit to something.
“It has been tennis for many years and especially when I missed out a year from shoulder surgery, it gave me time to think ‘well, this can happen on any given day and you cannot play sport anymore, what are you going to do?’”
It might be hard to believe that the businesswoman leading this sporting empire, still sees herself as the teenage girl who climbed up to hug her father Yuri in the players’ box after her Wimbledon triumph.
“I think from a very young age, I knew I didn’t have so many strengths in my game,” she says.
“I knew I wasn’t the strongest athlete out there, I knew I didn’t have an incredible amount of weapons out there but I knew from a young age that focus, especially in tennis, was one of the biggest weapons that you can have.”
For the next fortnight, that focus is firmly on Wimbledon.