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Sharapova: Back in the Market for No. 1


Posted on March 4, 2008

Marketing machine Maria Sharapova approaches her 21st birthday wiser, injury free, and with a Slam title under her belt after the Australian Open -- but says her best years lie ahead

By Richard Vach
The most marketable (and marketed) female athlete on the planet became a viable candidate for the No. 1 ranking again after winning her third Grand Slam title in January at the Australian Open. The marketing dream that is the 20-year-old Maria Sharapova stands at an imposing 6-foot-2 (two inches taller than when she first won Wimbledon) -- and astonishes even more when at celebrity functions where she towers over male athletes in her heels.

Her ever-increasing list of endorsements currently includes Sony Ericsson, Canon, Colgate, Gatorade, Landrover, Nike, Parlux Frangrances, Prince, Samantha Thavasa fashions, Tag Heuer, and Tropicana, topping an estimated $25 million a year in off-court earnings alone.

Sharapova is also an enigma -- at times self-depreciating and in awe of her own drawing power, and at other times ruthless in her quest to draw the dollar. As a 19-year-old she famously said, "It is never enough. I always look for more. Bring on the money."

Sharapova arrived in Bradenton, Fla., from Russia as an elementary school student, with her father Yuri, reportedly with no more than $800 in his pocket. As a gangly student at the Bollettieri Academy, the Russian was forced to survive in a strange new land without the amenities that her eventual tour breakthrough would provide. A working-class existence can certainly provide an attitude to take all you can, while you can.

"When I was working my way to the top of tennis I didn't say I was No. 2, I said I wanted to be No. 1," she said. "There's no limit to how much money you can make."

But since exiting her teenage years, the 20-year-old has publicly toned down her financial desires as other issues came to the forefront. Shoulder and other injuries dogged her throughout 2007, neutralizing her powerful service game and making her wonder if her shoulder would ever return to strength.

"After having so many setbacks last year, visiting so many doctors and MRI offices, winning this one just felt so right," Sharapova said after her Australian Open win. "Sometimes you just -- when you're putting the work in it just seems so, so hard, and you never know when that work's gonna pay off. When you're going through tough moments, you never know when you're going to have good moments."

On a personal note, Sharapova also experienced heartbreak along with her coach, Michael Joyce, last year when Joyce lost his mother, Jane, after a long-running bout with cancer.

"It completely changed my perspective on life," Sharapova said. "I think the reason for that is because it's one of the closest people in my team, in my family, that passed away. I'm lucky to have my grandparents and family and friends very healthy, knock on wood. It was a tough experience because it was so long, the process. She was sick with cancer for many years, and it had come back a few times...It just puts so much perspective into your life. During the time when I was practicing, the days I could practice without being injured, it was hard to motivate myself because tennis just didn't seem important in those moments whatsoever, at all."

Sharapova has grown a lot over the last year, if that is possible for the 20-going-on-35-year-old Russian. She appears composed and literal-minded in her press conferences and interviews, her elocution superior to many of the U.S.-born players on tour. Only rarely do you see Sharapova actually acting like the young woman she is, freshly removed from her teen years.

While she may seem composed, the Russian insists she does not nearly have her act together, a side she says is usually only seen by close friends.

Upon winning the US Open title, Sharapova lifted the trophy for photographers, only for the lid of the trophy to slide off and conk her on the head.

"All my friends texted me, saying, 'Typical Maria.' Things like that always happen to me," Sharapova said. "I'm a goofball. I'm the dork of the group."

Fans appreciate that her 'dorkiness' includes an affinity for technology. On her website she maintains a regular rapport with the Maria Nation. There is something for both male and female fans as the Russian blogs about topics from finding the right shade of lip care to plopping on the couch to watch a few hours of basketball when home.

"There were two things I wanted after I won," Sharapova blogged after winning the Australian Open title, "one was to hug my mom and second was to have a Big Mac, but instead I got a ticket to Israel [to play Fed Cup]. OK, I did have a Big Mac in Israel...My newest beauty obsession is orange lipstick. Never been a big make-up girl so not quite sure what pulled the trigger on this one but I'm really into it...Today I spent the entire day unpacking, going through mail, e-mails, and watching basketball games on TV (finally live instead of taped!)."

In addition to picturing themselves on the couch with Maria watching some hoops, young male readers in her blogosphere are also familiar with her fascination with 'hot' cars. By the age of 19, Sharapova had already had a couple run-ins with Florida law enforcement.

"I have been pulled over for speeding twice and both times the police officer asked me for my autograph and let me go. I am lucky," Sharapova told the media. "In some parts of the world there's no speed limit, right? In Germany, I think? I'd love to drive there."

Now on the almost-21-year-old Sharapova's Florida radar is winning the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami for the first time after runner-up efforts in 2005 and 2006. In those finals she lost to Kim Clijsters amd Svetlana Kuznetsova respectfully. In addition to winning three of the four Slams, Sharapova has also won three of the nine WTA Tour Tier I events, and hopes to make it four after this year in Miami.

BEIJING OLYMPICS

Another glimpse into the young-adult world of Maria is provided when the Russia talks about the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

"I'm very looking forward to the opening ceremony," Sharapova said. "I think that's one of the things that I was always watching on TV. My parents allowed me to stay up late to watch the opening ceremonies. I'd wait 'til Russia would come up. They would always be the last because it's the later letter in the alphabet. That would kill me because it would be about one in the morning. I'd put my white hat on, because that's what they were wearing, and walk around the house. So that's something that I'm very looking forward to."

The Beijing Olympics will offer ranking points, and it will be around that time that Sharapova could challenge for No. 1. She would have to defend her French Open semifinal points from 2007, and go deep at Wimbledon, where last year she lost in the 4th round, and at the US Open where she lost in the 3rd round.

Current world No. 1 Justine Henin, No. 3 Svetlana Kuznetsova, No. 4 Jelena Jankovic, and the No. 2 Ivanovic, will look to make it a wide-open race for the top spot in late 2008. Ivanovic didn't by many accounts appear mentally ready to take home her first Slam in the Australian Open final, despite the stellar play of Sharapova.

"You have Maria who's a tour veteran at 20, and then you have Ivanovic, who, at 20, seems much younger because she hasn't been at the top as long," says TV analyst Tracy Austin. "She's someone who I think is going to get to the top of the game in the future but is just not quite ready yet. I think she was just overwhelmed by the [Australian Open final] situation. Sharapova handled it beautifully."

"Beautifully" is the adjective most appropriate for describing how Sharapova has brought herself to her current position in early 2008. She is healthy via a strenuous rehabilitation regime, has raised her fitness level with hot-climate training, and is gracing more magazine covers and television/magazine ads these days than you can shake a Sony Ericsson cell phone at. Which in the end is good for tennis, and good for the earning potential of the young woman who refers to herself as a "global brand." Sharapova says there are more Slam titles on the way, as long as her body can hold up to the rigorous pounding of the modern tennis tour.

"I don't think I'm at the peak of my career yet," Sharapova says. "I don't think my body has 100% developed into its own. I've got many more things to learn in my tennis, and many things to build and improve."

This article appears in the March issue of Play Tennis Florida magazine, official magazine of USTA Florida. For more info go to www.PlayTennisFlorida.com.



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