It might not have fully sunk in, but 34-year-old Maria is quietly putting together a few remarkable accomplishments in 2022. Her 6-3, 1-6, 7-5 upset of No.26 seed Sorana Cirstea this week, from a double-break down in the third set, meant that she became the first mother of two to reach the third round of Wimbledon this century. It follows her second Hologic WTA Tour title in Bogota back in April.
"Some people like to do bungee-jumping," Maria says. "I like to come back to tennis after having kids, I guess."
The German's first daughter, Charlotte, was born in December of 2013. She returned four months later and had her career-best results, cracking the Top 50 in 2017 and winning her first title, in Mallorca the following year. Maria's second daughter, Cecilia, was born in April of 2021. It was always clear, she says, that she would resume her tennis career, which she did just three months later. She has already returned to the edge of the Top 100 at No.103.
"I'm kind of proud of myself to reach this point again," Maria says. "When you start coming back after a child, you never know how it will go. I have to say, I have been really lucky with my body. I am not really the person who is injured a lot, so I hope it stays like this. I can play a lot, and I like to play a lot."
What makes Maria's feats even more remarkable is her unique playing style and the overhauls she has made to it over the years. During her first maternity leave, she switched from a double-handed backhand to a single-hander, honing her new stroke throughout her pregnancy. (Maria says that the major difference coming back the second time was that she made no fundamental changes to her game, consequently didn't practice as much and therefore found it harder to get back in shape.)
These days, Maria's repertoire consists of a web of slices and spins off both wings, allied to phenomenal touch at net and a keen tactical mind. In Bogota, she pulled off one of the shots of the year when she successfully drop-shotted Rebecca Peterson despite the Swede already being at net, loading the stroke with so much spin that it still outfoxed Peterson. Against Cirstea, Maria was repeatedly able to tie her more powerful opponent in knots.
"Before with my backhand I really played mostly slice," Maria says. "I had a two-handed drive backhand, but I played it so little that when I came back, some people didn't remember I used to hit with two hands. Because I had the slice, I had the footwork for a one-handed backhand already. Now, when I hit with one hand, it feels like I did it all my life.
"My game is a lot about belief. I have to go to the net; I have to get my points in different ways. I'm not the one who hits full boom-boom-boom. I have to find solutions to win them in different ways. That's my game. My husband knows me the best and he's the perfect coach for me."
Maria's husband, former ATP player Charles-Edouard, is crucial to her success. Not only does his belief in his wife's abilities spur her on, but he takes on the lion's share of childcare as they travel the world together.
"He's amazing, that's true," Maria says. "He's the one who believes one million percent in me. He's here every day saying, 'I know you can do this, I know you can come back.' If you hear this from a person all the time, it gives you a lot of confidence.
"He's taking care of the kids -- he needs to. But he loves it. He loves his girls -- he has only girls and he's super happy about that. But you know, we do this together. We stay like a family together. That's for us the most important. My career, his career -- at the end of the day it's our career. It's a family business, let's say."
Ultimately, the focus for the Marias is on their daughters. As in so many aspects of their lives, they're deliberately breaking from the norm in how they choose to raise 8-year-old Charlotte and 1-year-old Cecilia.
"We chose this education for Charlotte, to travel around the world and do online school," Maria says. "It's different to other people, we know. It's also something we will do for Cecilia. I think it works, I think it shows her something different. It's a different life. But they're growing up in tennis -- even the little one, she has a tennis racquet in her hand -- and that's the point.
"At the end of the day, tennis is a nice sport. Sometimes, for sure, it's hard. But for your life, I think it's a super lesson. That's what we like to teach them travelling around, meeting new friends, experiencing different cultures, to see the world a little bit."
In Bogota, the sociable Charlotte quickly found herself in the squad of local children who attended the tournament every day. By the final, she was sitting with them and leading their cheers for her mother. Maria says this is the case wherever they go.
"She already has a new friend here. She plays tennis every morning with the friend. She's in a crèche and she has all her friends there. But that's the problem. She makes friends, so we have to stay. And that means I have to win! But for parents, it's the most important thing to see your child happy. And that's the case now, so it's nice."
Maria says that she is motivated by the idea that, through playing professional tennis, she can be a role model in life for her children. She considers the sport a perfect way to do this -- and not just within the family, but everything around them on tour. Fellow mother Serena Williams is the perfect example.
"I know her well, and it's great for tennis to have her back," Maria says. "She goes out on court and she will fight to the last point. It's what I was saying about being a role model, it's important for kids to see. Charlotte was so excited watching her this week, she wanted to stay up and watch the match live. It was super special to see what she means to the kids, to the next generation, to show them what it means to be a fighter and to go out there and to fight to the end."