The exit interview had just about ended last week when I asked Maria Sharapova if she would consider coaching in retirement.
Sharapova, standing tall as usual, doubled over with laughter.
Safe to say that was a no.
She also closed the door on a comeback as a player even though comebacks are a staple of women’s tennis.
“No,” she said. “I promise everyone.”
Kim Clijsters, a mother of three, recently returned to the tour at age 36 after more than seven years away from competition. Serena Williams, Sharapova’s kryptonite, is playing on in search of a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title at age 38, as she raises her 2-year-old daughter, Olympia.
Sharapova formally called it quits on Wednesday at 32, which seems young for a superstar to retire in this tennis era, even if Caroline Wozniacki left the game at 29 in January.
“It’s tough to compare everyone’s positions when it’s time,” Sharapova said. “I think everybody has very different things going on in their life, and I think for women there’s also the conversation of family, which is obviously a big part of Serena’s comeback after stepping away from the game for a little bit of time. But I think if there’s someone who can break records it’s her, and I have no doubt that she can.”
Sharapova, who wants to have children, said she had never envisioned playing after becoming a parent.
She said she “wouldn’t know how to do both” and would struggle to sacrifice time with her children to “dedicate hours and hours on your body and on your strength and on the court.” She added: “Those are never the circumstances I wanted to have a child around.”
Some people might take umbrage at that perspective, especially as many athletes strive for more work-life balance.
But Sharapova said her thinking was shaped in part by a two-year separation from her mother, Yelena, after she left Russia at age 6 with her father, Yuri, to train in Florida. Visa problems kept Yelena from joining them.
“That definitely influences a lot of decisions that I’ll make in the future,” Sharapova said, adding: “There’s the expression, ‘You make plans and God laughs,’ and I really hope he doesn’t laugh.”
Sharapova recognizes that her parents did the best they could in a challenging situation after the move to Florida. “I’ve really had such good relationships with my mother and my dad,” she said, “but I want to give my children a sense of peace and a sense of just home.”
So how will Sharapova spend her time now that she has retired with five Grand Slam singles titles, chronic pain in her right shoulder and her forearms, and millions in the bank?
She appears well positioned no matter what she decides.
“She has got the experience. She has the brains for it and the know-how. Take your pick, commissioner of women’s sports, head of the I.O.C., I don’t know. She could go anywhere with it,” said Martina Navratilova, the tennis great who spotted a young Sharapova at a Moscow clinic and recommended that she train at IMG Academy in Florida. “It just depends what would be her next passion.”
For now, sports administration is not in her plans and might be politically complicated considering her suspension for use of the recently banned substance meldonium in 2016.
The ban has left an undeniable stain even though an arbitration panel that reduced her ban from two years to 15 months concluded that she had not intentionally cheated. Social-media posts on her retirement have been awash in good-riddance commentary like “drug cheat” and “Sharadopa.”
“It was a situation I had to go through, and I did it in the most honest and humbling way,” Sharapova said. “And to be in my position and be so vulnerable and to say I made this mistake and to go through two trials, keep training the way I did and then come back and go on court and compete with the same amount of love for the sport is an incredible example. And I’m proud of that.”
Still, her suspension could be a potential obstacle going forward. Her 2017 autobiography, “Unstoppable,” delivered underwhelming sales in North America despite her remarkable life story.
A global star at 17 after upsetting Williams to win Wimbledon in 2004, Sharapova was among the first female athletes to build a personal brand rather than just a portfolio.
“When I retired in 2006, somebody said to me, ‘You need to work on your brand.’ And I said, ‘What is that?’” Navratilova said. “I was 50 years old, and I didn’t know what that meant. I thought, Coca-Cola? I mean, I’m a brand? Me? So she was ahead of her time, and she capitalized on it, and that shows her multi-dimensionality.”
Sharapova, of course, had vast help from her agent, Max Eisenbud, and other advisers.
Forbes has estimated that Sharapova was the world’s highest-earning female athlete for 11 consecutive years and that she made nearly $30 million in 2015. (Her career earnings were eventually overtaken by those of Williams.)
“That’s a lot more than the $900 Maria and her dad came with to the U.S.A.,” Eisenbud said.
“As an 18- or 19-year-old, she was sitting in board rooms with Nike and helping design dresses and all those types of things,” he continued, adding: “She just has this ability to understand, learn and ask questions. I’ve gone to photo shoots with so many clients, and she’s the only one who will meet with the photographer and creative team and really try to understand what they are looking for.”
Eisenbud said Sharapova’s long-term endorsement deals with Nike, Evian and Porsche would continue in retirement. She is interested in studying architecture, designing tennis and sports facilities and focusing on the management of her candy company, Sugarpova.
“I wish she would do less with the candy bit,” Navratilova said. “Sugar is just not good for kids.”
Sharapova said she would soon be headed to a business conference in Salt Lake City that she had been unable to attend as an active player.
“I’m more forward-driven, and I am also incredibly competitive,” she said. “And there are a lot of aspects in life and in business that I want to sink my teeth into.”
But as she leaves what she calls her “day job” for something new, she has continuity elsewhere. She and her boyfriend, Alexander Gilkes, a British businessman who founded an online auction site, have been together for more than two years.
“He’s been an incredibly positive influence in my life, and he’s very happy that he gets to spend more time with me,” Sharapova said, though she conceded that her more stable schedule might be disorienting. “He’s slightly worried. He keeps calling me ‘Hurricane Maria.’”
That is because during her peripatetic career she made a habit of dashing into his life and then suddenly disappearing.
“He’s like, ‘Wait, you’re not leaving for three weeks?’” Sharapova said, grinning. “I’m like, ‘Let me check. Hold on.’”