On the red carpet at the Royal Albert Hall last month, tennis star Maria Sharapova was wearing a particularly noteworthy dress. Hers was not covered in virgin plastic sequins, like those worn by others at The Fashion Awards. Rather it was made from recycled Evian bottles and reclaimed silk, and made by Dutch designer Iris van Herpen.
"The red carpet is not normal, it is something very unique, like you’re playing a character," says Sharapova, 34. "I don’t do too many – no more than four or five each year. But when I do I get really excited about them because it’s not just the dress itself, it’s the whole look that you put together weeks before. There’s definitely more playfulness and I take a little bit more risk on the red carpet than I do with fashion in my everyday life."
Liaising for nine months via Zoom calls plus attending in-person fittings at van Herpen’s Amsterdam atelier, is something Sharapova admits she just wouldn’t have had time to commit to two years ago.
But since announcing her retirement from tennis in February 2020 (after 28 years of play, becoming world No 1, achieving five Grand Slam titles, and becoming the highest earning female athlete for 11 years in a row) Sharapova is now embracing new beginnings, enjoying being creative and determining what the next chapter of her life will look like.
"The tournament schedules really drove my entire calendar," she says. "So [since] I retired, there’s now an amazing opportunity to be a part of these types of projects, when before I was quite limited."
She’s spending her time and her fortune in ways most would only dream of. Engaged to British businessman Alexander Gilkes since last December, the couple spent much of the summer venturing between Dubrovnik, Paris, Amsterdam, London, Hampshire and Ballindalloch – all before dropping back into New York to attend the Met Gala.
As well as running her organic confectionery company Sugarpova, co-owning beauty brand Supergoop, and continuing commitments for long-established endorsement deals with brands such as Evian, she is also now embracing life as something of a fashion influencer.
Sharapova refreshingly doesn’t work with a professional stylist, yet over four million followers on her Instagram account love to see insights into her personal wardrobe. Across that schedule of trips she wore pieces by The Row and Simone Rocha, as well as recycled cashmere tracksuits from Pangaia, documenting her style diaries casually via snaps along the way.
"My family is Russian and there’s always this culture of elegance – like a ballerina’s body – and form and sculpture that I think about when getting dressed," she says. "I like to buy minimal pieces that will represent my body and style the best, and that I can wear for years to come. And I understand that you pay more for that quality. I always invest in getting things tailored, too."
Sharapova wasn’t always this confident about her classic sense of style though, she admits. "Showing my personality and style on court was one thing, because it really represents how you feel and the confidence that you put forward when you play, which is so important," she explains. "But with the way that you dress off the court, it has to be true to who you are. How you felt as a teenager is very different from how you feel when you’re in your 20s and now in my mid 30s. I feel a lot more comfortable with all the decisions that I make and I don’t second guess anymore. I understand what looks good on my body and what doesn’t."
The subject of how successful athletes manage splitting their time between training and competing, and enjoying the myriad creative projects and endorsement deals that naturally come their way, has made headlines lately.
Critics of Emma Raducanu – the 19-year-old British newcomer who became globally famous in September after sweeping to victory at the US Open – have suggested that she could be ‘distracted’ by new opportunities in the aftermath, from red carpet appearances to Dior endorsement deals.
The rugby coach Eddie Jones was among the most vocal. "There’s a reason why the young girl who won the US Open hasn’t done so well afterwards," he said. "What have you seen her on – the front page of Vogue... wearing Christian Dior clothes. All that is a distraction around her."
It’s a position that Sharapova says she both identifies and sympathises with. Her manager at talent company IMG, Max Eisenbud, aided her with her personal brand image, building a career worth a reported £200 million.
"You learn through it," Sharapova says of the experience. "When [you’re young] and you succeed, there are certainly going to be opportunities off court that come your way. Emma is an incredible athlete, what she has achieved at such a young age is very rare in the sports world and she has to enjoy every single moment of it."
When Sharapova first won Wimbledon in 2004, she too had seemingly burst onto the scene at just 17 years old. The aftermath, she says, was just as incredible – suddenly she too was at fashion parties and film premieres for the first time.
"From my own experience at a young age, winning Wimbledon came so unexpectedly I never thought that I was physically ready to win seven matches in a 14-day period," she explains. "When that happens, it’s incredibly overwhelming, you still can’t quite believe it. Emma and her family will cherish that beautiful feeling forever, because it is all so exciting. You’re thinking, did that really just happen?"
Social media, Sharapova remembers, was not such a consideration back then, nor a source of pressure in the way that it is for young athletes now.
"When I first came on the tour, I think Facebook was the only thing out there," she laughs. "It’s very different now. At the end of the day, it’s a very personal choice – I hope that people aren’t pressured to constantly have to keep up because if you think that way, then it adds up and creates extra pressures that aren’t really necessary."
Now Sharapova says she is enjoying using Instagram more than ever – but always on her terms. "You do have to understand that there’s a fan base – they want to know so much more than how you hit a backhand," she says. "So maybe for some there’s pressure to post. But these days I really like the creativity of it. I find beauty in the fact that it’s my own decision."