In tennis player Maria Sharapova’s new memoir, her one-sided rivalry against Serena Williams, which Sharapova admits began in her own mind, takes a stereotypical turn in regard to body image. She chooses to describes Williams’ body, including her “thick arms and thick legs” that are “so intimidating.”
Sharapova, 30, became the first Russian woman to win Wimbledon, went on to hold the No. 1 spot and won four more Grand Slam tournaments. The International Tennis Federation suspended her for two years in 2016 after she tested positive for a banned substance. But following an appeal, Sharapova’s suspension was reduced to 15 months. She returned to competition in April.
In her memoir released Tuesday, “Unstoppable: My Life So Far,” she writes about the suspension and her struggles of leaving a small Russian town with her father to come to Florida in order to train at tennis academies, knowing little English and arriving with only $700.
But Sharapova puts a lot of emphasis on Williams in the book, beginning in the prologue, mentioning her 2004 Wimbledon win against the then two-time defending champion.
“Serena Williams has marked the heights and the limits of my career — our stories are intertwined,” Sharapova writes. “I approach every match against her with trepidation and respect. It was Serena whom I beat in the Wimbledon final to emerge on the international stage at 17, and it’s Serena who’s given me the hardest time since. I’ve beaten all the players who have beaten Serena, but it’s been nearly impossible for me to beat Serena herself. There’s a reason for this — she knows it and she knows that I know. It’s our secret.”
Sharapova goes on to mention in the book that as she trained to become a professional tennis player, the more she heard about Serena and Venus Williams, “the more determined I became not to be beaten down, or submit.”
“That’s when the rivalry began for me … in my mind, before I’d even seen the Williams sisters,” she writes. “They’re a force. Tall girls in tennis whites, with bright smiles and piercing, focused eyes.”
Sharapova also writes about her perception of Serena Williams’ physique and being intimidated when they had their first match in 2004 in Miami.
“First of all, her physical presence is much stronger and bigger than you realize watching TV,” Sharapova writes.
“She has thick arms and thick legs and is so intimidating and strong. And tall, really tall. I looked across the net, and, no way to get around it, she was just there! More there than other players, if that makes sense. It’s the whole thing — her presence, her confidence, her personality.”
A New York Times article on tennis champion Serena Williams’ physique has stirred up controversy on social media. A long-time advocate for elite professional female athletes shares her perspective.
Sharapova, who is only five years younger than Williams, and taller, continued with her description of the athlete.
“She was a grown woman, experienced, the best player in the world. It still feels that way. Even now, she can make me feel like a little girl.”
Williams topped the Women’s Tennis Association rankings in May at No. 1 following her Australian Open victory, which was her last match before announcing her pregnancy. She and fiancé Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, welcomed their first child on Sept. 1.
She has won 23 Grand Slam titles, and is expected to compete for Grand Slams upon her return. In January 2016, Williams beat Sharapova on the tennis court for the 18th straight time. “Serena’s decade-long domination of Sharapova is astonishing,” according to the Business Insider.
Though, as Sharapova illustrates, talk about Williams’ athletic ability almost always includes talk about her body.
Yolanda L. Jackson told DiversityInc that because of Williams’ talent, she has been prone to scrutiny about her appearance.
“I think that ever since Serena and Venus arrived on the scene, their appearance had always been a topic for criticism,” said Jackson, who now owns a sports marketing firm after serving as senior director of athlete marketing and promotions at the Women’s Sports Foundation for more than 20 years.
Williams responds to McEnroe’s sexist comments that question her ability to defeat pro tennis players in the men’s circuit.
“It started when they wore beads in their hair and continued as they advanced. Serena especially has been targeted because she’s the greatest tennis player of all time. That very fact makes her prime for attacks. The more she achieves, the more people will try to find something wrong with her.”
A 2013 Rolling Stone article, “Serena Williams: The Great One,” states, “Here are the facts. Serena is the number-one tennis player in the world. Maria Sharapova is the number-two tennis player in the world. Sharapova is tall, white and blond, and, because of that, makes more money in endorsements than Serena … [Serena] has done heaps of good as a role model for the non-Sharapovas of the world.”
Williams said in the interview that she “had to get comfortable with knowing that one of my weaknesses was my weight.”
“Especially growing up with Venus, who’s so tall and slim and model-like, and me, I’m thick and hips and everything,” Williams said. “I used to feel like I wanted to be her. I wanted to be thin, but it wasn’t me, so I had to learn that I’m going to have larger boobs. I’m going to be bigger, and just enjoy that. So I think it’s good for a lot of other girls who are curvy or more bodacious to be confident in themselves.”
In regard to strong physiques and women tennis players, Jackson said tennis great Martina Navratilova set a precedent for “what it takes to be a champion and win tournaments.”
“She was the first female tennis player to create a fitness routine where she would work out in the gym to gain strength and out-play her opponents,” she said.
In her memoir, Sharapova describes walking into the clubhouse after the 2004 Wimbledon match and overhearing Williams crying after losing.
“People talk about Serena’s strength, her serve and confidence, how her particular game matches up to my particular game, and, sure there is truth to all of that; but, to me, the real answer was there, in this locker room, where I was changing and she was bawling. I think Serena hated me for being the skinny kid who beat her, against all odds, at Wimbledon.”
The “skinny kid who beat her, against all odds?”
“Actually, I think Maria was being self-deprecating,” Jackson said. “Serena has always promoted her body and even posted Instagram videos of her workout routine. That’s not the action of someone who might be envious of someone who clearly cannot be compared to her physique.”
Sharapova does refer to herself as “skinny” several times in the book and also makes many references to having blond hair. In one part, she says when arrived in Florida as a young girl and started attending a training academy she was compared to Anna Kournikova.
“Tennis is a sport populated by fierce parents,” she writes. “Before my arrival, Anna had been the only Russian prospect at the academy, a cute blond prodigy. Then I turned up, just as blond, hitting just as well, but even younger. And getting better every day.”
Ironically, she laments that she was compared to Kournikova solely based on appearance and nationality, not ability.
“Anna Kournikova was a standout at the academy, and I was compared to her from the very beginning because we were both Russians, because we were both blond … We don’t look alike, don’t act alike, and our tennis games are very different. But the only thing the public saw was hair color and country of origin.”
So why then does Sharapova choose to make Williams’ physical appearance a factor in their “rivalry?”