A decade on from the Wimbledon triumph that changed her life, Maria Sharapova remembers the moment she set her heart on winning at the All England Club.
It was not during the course of the 2004 competition, which ended with the 17-year-old being crowned champion after a stunning victory over Serena Williams, or even the year before, when she reached the fourth round on her tournament debut. It was in 2002, after her loss to fellow Russian Vera Dushevina in the Wimbledon girls’ final.
“I think the junior final was on the Sunday, after the men had finished,” Sharapova recalled. “I was one of the last people leaving the site and it was quite late and nearly dark. It’s a bit eerie really to leave when there’s nobody there and the tournament has finished.
“As we were driving away I remember looking back and thinking how special it was. I was probably upset because I’d lost in the final. I was thinking about the match and all the what-ifs, but I looked back and thought how beautiful it was, how I couldn’t wait to come back and how I’d really like to win it one day.”
Two years later Sharapova did just that, completing her triumph with a 6-1, 6-4 victory over Williams on one of the most remarkable days in Wimbledon history. There have been younger women’s champions – Lottie Dod at 15 years and 285 days in 1887 and Martina Hingis at 16 years and 278 days in 1997 – but Sharapova’s victory, 75 days after her 17th birthday, was extraordinary for several reasons.
Sharapova was the world No 15 at the time. Until her triumph no player ranked as low had won the title. The Russian had arrived in SW19 having won just three minor tournaments in her career (most recently at Edgbaston in the build-up to Wimbledon), while 22-year-old Williams was chasing her 25th title and her third in succession at the All England Club. The American had won five of the previous seven Grand Slam tournaments in which she had competed.
Sharapova sailed through her first four matches without dropping a set, but had to come from behind to beat Ai Sugiyama in the quarter-finals and Lindsay Davenport in the semi-finals. Williams, who had not dropped a set until she met Amélie Mauresmo in the semi-finals, was the red-hot favourite, but her resistance in the final lasted just 73 minutes.
Sharapova won five games in a row to take the first set and recovered from 4-2 down in the second. Her game was a mixture of the crunching groundstrokes which have become her trademark, some audacious lobs and one shot driven straight at Williams’ face as the champion closed in on the net.
Looking back, Sharapova believes a key factor was that she treated the final just like any other match. “I really had horse blinkers on,” she said. “I didn’t think about anything. I think that helped me get through the situation so much better. That’s why I was fearless. I treated it as if I was playing on Court No 20, although I was actually on Centre Court in front of thousands of people playing for the Wimbledon championship.”
She had spent the night before the final fretting about a sore throat, which she feared would mean she would be unable to do herself justice. She did not sleep well, although there were fewer distractions than there had been during most previous nights during the tournament.
“At the beginning it was a bit of a mess because our housing situation didn’t work out,” Sharapova explained. “We ended up staying with a family with three young kids. My father and I were on the top floor of a home in Wimbledon village, so that was very interesting.
“There were a lot of 6am wake-up calls from the kids. I still think back and wonder how I coped with that. Then the next morning, after the final, I was just holding my replica trophy with them in their garden like it was no big deal.
“I had faced so many things. I was in the Wimbledon final playing Serena Williams, who had won the tournament so many years. It was my first ever Grand Slam final. I don’t think I would have done well if I had thought of all those things – and I really didn’t.”
Sharapova went on to win all four Grand Slam titles and become world No 1, but it was the 2004 Wimbledon triumph that put her on the road to becoming the world’s most famous and most successful sportswoman. She has topped the Forbes list of the planet’s highest-earning sportswomen for the last nine years in a row, with her latest annual earnings estimated at $29m (about £17m).
Although she has a sharp business brain – her latest and boldest venture, her Sugarpova confectionery business, has been a big success – Sharapova’s off-court commitments have never distracted her from her tennis, despite some serious shoulder problems. She came back from her latest six-month lay-off to win her second French Open a fortnight ago.
“One of the reasons I have been able to keep that success and carry on with all the things I do is that I love going on the court,” she said. “I love competing and the fight and the drive, but I also have opportunities to do things that make me happy and which I really enjoy.
“If you don’t have that passion you are never going to be really successful. Things are always going to be a drag and weigh you down and pull you in so many directions when you are a 17-year-old who has won Wimbledon.”
Sharapova has never made a secret of the fact that Wimbledon remains her most treasured prize. Her replica trophy takes pride of place in her home in Florida. “It’s the smallest Grand Slam trophy, although the French Open is also pretty small,” she said.
Ten years later, perhaps the biggest surprise is that 2004 remains Sharapova’s only Wimbledon success. In nine subsequent appearances she has reached only one more final, losing to Petra Kvitova three years ago.
Who would have thought in 2004 that 10 years on Sharapova would have won more French Opens than Wimbledons or that Williams would have beaten her 15 times in a row between 2005 and the present day?
But then again, as her 2004 triumph told us, sport’s capacity to surprise is one of its most enduring attractions.