Teen tennis star Sharapova insists she's more than just looks
Attractive Drawing Card
By Zack McMillin
February 8, 2004
The picture shows a blond teenage girl, an athlete, dressed in a hot pink one-piece outfit that barely covers her lap.
She is tilted sideways in the tennis chair, her right leg - long and tan - lifted over the chair's arm, exposing the pink spandex underneath.
She is also undeniably attractive, a girl dubbed by one tennis broadcaster as the Siberian Siren and whose natural good looks have drawn comparisons to fellow Russian sensation Anna Kournikova.
She is Maria Sharapova - 16 years old, ranked as the 27th-best women's tennis player in the world, a client of IMG, the influential agency, as a tennis player and a model.
And she is coming to Memphis.
That sultry picture of Sharapova is featured on many of the advertisements - billboards, print advertisements, Web sites - The Racquet Club has produced to promote next week's women's tennis tournament, the Cellular South Cup, Feb. 15-21.
"Let's face it," says Mac Winker, owner of The Racquet Club, "If you are a really attractive person and happen to be a good athlete, you have a leg up."
Winker is hoping Sharapova helps boost attendance and revenue at Memphis's annual professional tennis event. The women's tournament is in its third year as a companion event to the 28-year-old Kroger St. Jude men's tournament. It's probably most well-known for the one player who did not play the past two years - Kournikova.
The tournament had wrapped its marketing around Kournikova in 2002 and 2003, but she was unable to play either year because of injury. Now retired from competitive tennis, Kournikova did make an appearance at the tournament and at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital last year. She is scheduled to make another appearance this year on Feb. 16.
Sharapova, because she is blond, from Russia and an aspiring model, has heard the Kourni-clone comparisons, ad nauseum. She has rejected them, not least because Kournikova, now 22, never won a professional tournament.
Sharapova already has two tournament titles.
"I'm not the next anyone,'' Sharapova has said. "I'm the first Maria Sharapova."
In a recent story in USA Today, Sharapova said: "If people want me to be a tennis babe, I'm sorry. I'm not going to be that."
Indeed, Sharapova has plenty of admirers whose sole concern is tennis.
Among them is her coach, Robert Lansdorp, known for his tutelage of stars like Tracy Austin, Lindsay Davenport and Pete Sampras.
Lansdorp told Sports Illustrated that Sharapova has "that quality of a champion: She plays without fear."
Another of her mentors is Nick Bollettieri, whose famous tennis school in Florida has produced many of tennis's stars, including Andre Agassi and Jim Courier. He, too, rejects the comparisons to Kournikova.
"The similarity I see is that they are both good looking, but Maria really is very different," Bollettieri told reporters in Toronto last summer. "She has more firepower and a different mentality than Anna. She could bend a steel nail, she is so tough."
It was Bollettieri who accepted the 6-year-old Maria into his school a decade ago, after her father, Yuri, brought her to the United States with $1,000 in his pocket and no English-language skills. Shara pova was born in western Siberia, in a town called Nyagan. Afraid of problems associated with Chernobyl, her family moved to Sochi, a resort town on the Black Sea.
Sharapova spent two years away from her mother, who was unable to secure a visa to join her family in Bradenton, Fla., at Bollettieri's school.
"I think Russians might be tougher than other people," Sharapova told a London newspaper.
"When I arrived in America, I was young, but I knew what I wanted. I think that when you start from nothing, when you come from nothing, it makes you hungry."
Sharapova comes to Memphis having played in two tournaments so far this season, the Australian Open (third-round loss to Anastasia Myskina) and the Toray Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo last week (second-round loss to Daniela Hantuchova).
Because of her age, Sharapova's playing schedule is limited.
Winker and The Racquet Club are thrilled to have her in the draw, to say the least.
"She's definitely the No. 1 sought-after young player in the world and absolutely the No. 1 up-and-comer," said Winker.
Sharapova will participate in a fashion show with local models Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at The Racquet Club.