Maria takes good look around
The face of women's tennis has a mature approach to life, as Barry Flatman reports
RUSSIA's Maria Sharapova looks out of the window from the 32nd floor of her five-star Melbourne hotel and sees her own image emblazoned on an advertising hoarding as big as a six-storey building. "Is this the scariest sight in tennis?" the Nike poster asks.
"It's overwhelming," Sharapova says. "First time I noticed it, I just looked at it and smiled. Now I laugh, but I can't deny I do look at it. It's hard not to when it's your face."
The image of the 17-year-old is an important one for organisers of the Australian Open, who are without last year's finalists, Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters, as well as Jennifer Capriati, the champion in 2001 and 2002.
Nike realises the worth of Sharapova, choosing her over the likes of Serena Williams, Roger Federer and Lleyton Hewitt to plaster over the city's advertising space.
Women's tennis is also breathing a sigh of relief over the emergence of the Russian. The grande dame herself, Martina Navratilova, said: "Maria winning Wimbledon was the best thing that could happen to the game."
Billboards are nothing new for the Russian. Just a couple of months ago there was a fuss in Los Angeles when some construed her pose enticing interest in the end-of-year WTA Tour Championships as unbecoming of one so young. Sharapova went out and won the tournament, delivering the most tangible proof that her victory at Wimbledon last year was no juvenile fluke. More likely, a sign of what is to come over the next half decade.
Sharapova delights in telling inquisitors that she is a renaissance woman. But surely she is a vision of the future? A year ago she figured prominently in the lists of those to keep an eye on in 2004, but nobody believed her breakthrough would come so quickly.
At the start of the year, she had advanced more than 150 places up the WTA rankings to sit just outside the world's top 30 and had reached a couple of singles finals in Tokyo and Quebec. But apart from reaching Wimbledon's second week, she could boast just one other win in a Grand Slam tournament.
If 2004 was a year that saw Sharapova take the world of tennis by surprise, she was also amazed by her own success. She has a manner of self-deprecation mixed with an underlying seriousness that is reminiscent of a young Monica Seles. Both adopted English as their native tongue after moving to the US and enrolling with Nick Bollettieri's tennis academy in Florida. Both tend to race through their answers in the hope of getting a few more words in. And both appreciated early in life what was required to win matches.
"If somebody had told me what would happen, I would have replied, I cannot believe what you are saying, not in a million years," Sharapova giggles. "I've never set myself any goals about the time it would take to crack the top 20 or the top 10. I've always thought if I work hard and give extra effort, then one day I will be whatever I want to be. But never so soon. I was convinced I wasn't ready, either physically or mentally."
Strength and stamina were an issue. She tired easily and admitted she lacked the physical resilience to last in a two-week tournament. Only a year or so previously, there were mutterings that anorexia might be a problem.
"Yeah, I heard those things, but they weren't true; I love to eat," she says, taking a sizeable bite out of a pear. "When I was little, I was the normal size, but my cheeks were chubby. Then two years ago I got to the final of the junior tournament in Australia and everybody close to me remembers that I was so skinny. That was the time I started growing. My bones were long, but my muscles weren't strong enough to support my body. But I eat all the time. I love sweet things -- chocolate most of all. I can't go without chocolate. I am a huge McDonald's fan, but I know that I have to eat normal food to perform to my best."
Gregarious and outgoing, Sharapova loves to talk about her tennis, her life, her interests and even her reading material. Flying to Australia, she finished Angels and Demons by Dan Brown after being transfixed by The Da Vinci Code. She is regularly seen listening to her pink iPod (her current favourite is Robbie Williams).
Sharapova is essentially a private person, though. IMG, her management company, and agent, Max Eisenbud, reject most interview requests. Photo shoots close to a Grand Slam or high-profile tournament are off-limits. And although TAG Heuer has invested heavily in her ability to market its watches, Canon believes she can sell cameras and Motorola sees her face as a lucrative advantage in the mobile telephone market, they are all made sharply aware of her parameters.
Eisenbud insists that each contract involves very few days of actual commitment. There is also the question of image -- Red Bull was turned away -- because of a perceived link with vodka in teenage circles.
Although the name is rarely mentioned, Anna Kournikova is regarded as the template to avoid at all costs. "If Sharapova were content to be the 10th-best tennis player in the world, then more companies would be allowed to part with their money," her agent says. But her aim is to become No.1, and that means sacrifices.
"Of course I want to be No.1, and that is all I care about when I view my career," Sharapova says.
"When I started playing, it wasn't because I wanted to make commercials or be a model. I wasn't playing tennis to get attention or because my family needed money. I was a normal kid living in a normal family environment who liked to play.
"I have always wanted to achieve great things and knew that you can dream and wish and work hard, but not everybody can be lucky. I'm not going to do anything that will affect my chances."
Never once does Sharapova, ranked fourth in the world, give the impression that she is satisfied with what she has achieved. There are players who have retired content after lifting one Grand Slam trophy, but she craves more. Remembering Wimbledon, she says: "That moment was basically what I live for. Before the tournament, I would not have known, but after winning, I feel that is what I'm here on earth for. I'm only 17 and didn't expect to be able to play two weeks in a row at the same level. A year earlier, I got to the fourth round, but didn't play my best because I was so tired.
"Then I got to the quarters in Paris and knew I was getting to a point where I could manage the second week of a Slam. At Wimbledon, it's like the puzzle had come together. Everything fell into place."
If Sharapova has her feet on the ground, she has a strong social conscience, too. She was brought up not to cry after being told as a child by her parents that it was futile, but she still suffers anguish at the tragedies of the world.
After the deaths of the Beslan schoolchildren, she made black ribbons for all the Russian players on tour and donated the Porsche she won at the end-of-season WTA Championships in Los Angeles to the appeal.
Just before Christmas, she played in an exhibition to raise funds for hurricane victims in Florida. Then, when she arrived to play a tournament in Thailand two days after the tsunami struck, she donated $US10,000 in person to the Thai Prime Minister. Clearly the high-school sociology course she follows on the internet has made its mark. "It's taught me what part you can play in the world," she says. "As an individual, you can have a big impact. It is very important, if you get a chance, to help in any way you can. I am fortunate to make a good living, but you never know what can happen tomorrow. I feel for those in Asia."
After discussing such matters, tennis seems a triviality. Sharapova says she has no idols because, to her way of thinking, nobody is perfect. She is at ease with fame and accepts that people will point at her in restaurants or ask for her autograph: "If you want to take the prizes, then you cannot complain about what goes with it."
Nevertheless, pursuit of further success will be her calling for the remainder of the Australian Open.
"There are just four majors each year and everybody here is prepared. When you are No.4 in the world, people say you will do well, but I never expect anything from myself, because I'm only 17. If people believe I'm going to win everything in the world, they are wrong, simply because I'm human. I'm still young and there are so many things in my game I want to improve. Sure, I'm going to lose some matches, but who doesn't? I have lessons still to learn. If I don't learn them now, I'll never be a complete player."
Many who have watched Sharapova are convinced that she is destined to win more Grand Slam tournaments. But they also believe her career will be short, because she will turn to other challenges, so we should savour her presence now. She is fresh and vibrant: a charismatic champion who can only enhance the image of her sport.
The Sunday Times