Maria Sharapova first picked up a tennis racket at age four in her hometown of Sochi, Russia. “At that time tennis wasn’t a very big sport in Russia,” she told CNBC in 2015. It “was very much a leisure activity that my dad liked to play in his free time and I would join him occasionally.” But then, “one day, I picked up a racket and just went on my own — I think I was tired of watching him. I saw some kids playing in front of a wall and I joined them, and that’s how my tennis history began.”
Besides loving the game, she had extra incentive to practice: When she was young, “my dad would reward me with a lollipop or chocolate after a long day of practice,” the athlete and entrepreneur recalls on her candy company website.
By age six, Sharapova showed so much promise that tennis legend Martina Navratilova noticed her and recommended her family move to the U.S. for more training opportunities. A year later, the rising star and her dad left her mom to develop her tennis at Nick Bollettieri’s prestigious academy in Florida. They arrived with just $700 and rented a small, $250-a-month apartment.
The sacrifice paid off: A decade after moving to the States, at age 17, Sharapova clinched her first Grand Slam. Today, the 31-year-old has earned more than $38 million in career prize money, despite a 15-month suspension from the WTA, and was the world’s highest-paid female athlete for 11 straight years.
And she still has a sweet tooth. That’s part of the reason the tennis star launched her candy company, Sugarpova, in 2012. “Sugarpova was created out of a desire for me to share a little taste of my lifestyle with my fans and candy-loving consumers,” Sharapova said in a press release announcing Sugarpova’s expansion into travel retail specialist Hudson News.
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Plus, pursuing business would be a way to make a living when her tennis career ended. While she didn’t start Sugarpova until 2012, she had been thinking about life off the court as early at 2008, when she was sidelined due to a serious shoulder injury.
“The first time I really started thinking about business and my own ventures was when I was going through my injury,” Sharapova told CNBC in 2015. “I was 21 years old, I didn’t know if I’d be able to play again and I had made enough money to not have to work for the rest of my life and be able to support my family and be very happy.”
“Candy wasn’t something that I had ever thought I would get into,” she added. “I never knew anything about it except I had a big sweet tooth and that maybe one day I would develop it into a big brand.” But, “I love to work, I love to do things, I love to learn.”
Today, the athlete’s candy line, which includes chocolates and gummies, is available in 22 countries and sold via a variety of retail partners as well as online.
As for Sharapova’s go-to sweet, “I love Russian chocolates,” she tells CNBC Make It. “They are neatly wrapped chocolate wafers in playful wrapping designs. And Sugarpova rum cherry truffles have been my guilty pleasure since we launched truffles.”
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