Tennis: Sharapova a marketing executive's dream
Sharapova is already the most-photographed and most-interviewed female tennis player on the planet.
Picture / Reuters
By Paul Lewis and Agencies
She is the face of women's tennis. And the legs, and the body and, if you'd been in Toronto for a recent tournament, rather more of her chest than her Nike tennis dress designer would have wanted to see.
Maria Sharapova isn't just the world No 1 and favourite for the US Open which begins in New York tomorrow - she is also almost the complete antithesis of the woman who might be favoured to beat her for the title, Belgium's Kim Clijsters.
While Sharapova is the femme fatale of women's tennis - Anna Kournikova with talent - and the new world No 1, Clijsters, a former world No 1, is maintaining her girl-next-door image, the unruly hair, the strong physique and an air of understatement. Sharapova, 18, won Wimbledon in 2004; Clijsters is recognised as maybe the best player never to win a Grand Slam event. Kind of like the Phil Mickelson of women's tennis - even though she is still only 22.
Sharapova wouldn't be out of place on on a catwalk. Clijsters wouldn't be out of place on a hockey field. Sharapova is already the most-photographed and most-interviewed female tennis player on the planet; Clijsters, while she does not avoid publicity, doesn't court it. Scarcely a word has ever passed her lips about the much-publicised but unexplained broken romance with the Australian uber-brat, Lleyton Hewitt.
Sharapova now has a global following and a global marketing empire. She is the highest-paid sportswoman in the world, earning more than US$20 million for on- and off-court activity. In Japan, for instance, you can buy pillows shaped in the form of Sharapova's breasts and lap. The breast pillow by the firm Sharanpowan is made with a cover in the style of a tennis shirt that can be removed to reveal more intimate details. The breast pillow costs $17, the lap pillow $29. The Japanese appear to find the lower part of Sharapova's body more attractive than its upper part, according to a Russian newspaper which reported this phenomenon without comment.
But it is a good indication of the fuss being made over Sharapova's looks - even though the 18-year-old is still growing and recently shot up from 6ft to 6ft 2in. In her most recent tournament, Sharapova's comeliness was used to market the event - to the extent that the pictures used on the banners promoting it showed Sharapova escaping from her tennis dress, a promotional tactic that backfired as it created a minor storm in Toronto about overusing sex to sell.
In the end the crowds stayed away, although that was almost certainly due to the fact that Sharapova pulled out of the tournament with an injury rather than a backlash against her inadvertent exposure.
But, unlike Kournikova, Sharapova has ability and a ruthless streak. She has a vicious serve, almost 200km/hr, and a deadly backhand. She covers enormous ground with those long legs. She is consistent, having won six tournaments since her triumph at Wimbledon, and reached the quarters and two semifinals in this year's three Grand Slam events, rising from 324 to No 1 in three years.
Former top pro Pam Shriver told Time magazine: "Her desire set her apart from the pack. Now, she has an aura that floats around, and that's intimidating."
She has a mean, stubborn streak best seen when the pressure comes on - perhaps dating from the time when her parents fled their Siberian town to escape the nuclear residue of Chernobyl. At six, Sharapova was playing at a Moscow tennis clinic when Martina Navratilova spotted her and the family scraped together enough money to send her to Nick Bollettieri's famed tennis academy in Florida. The older girls in the dorms bullied the skinny nine-year-old who had little English.
"I had only myself as company," said Sharapova. "It just made me tougher."
Tougher but not unbeatable. The jury is still out about how good a No 1 she will be and whether she can focus on tennis rather than her global image. The Williams sisters have had her measure in the recent past - Venus at Wimbledon this year - and Clijsters beat her 6-3, 7-5 in a Los Angeles tournament in March.
Clijsters is making a superb recovery from the wrist injury that ruined her 2004. She's won three out of the last four tournaments in North America, including Toronto where she crushed Belgian compatriot Justin Henin-Hardenne in the final - the player who has most often been her undoing in the Slams. Four times Clijsters has made Slam finals and four times has come second, three of them to Henin-Hardenne.
She is hitting the ball and moving around court as well as any time in her career. The only question is over her killer instinct. At Toronto, before she played good friend Russian Anastasia Myskina, Clijsters said she would not be taking advantage of Myskina's ankle injury by playing drop shots all day.
She still won in straight sets but talk centred on whether she was simply too nice to "do the business".
"A lot of people ask me, 'Are you too nice to win tournaments?' I mean, you know, I'd rather be known as a nice person who was a good ambassador for the sport of tennis. But, I mean, it doesn't really bother me too much what the people are talking about," said Clijsters.
At the end of the US Open, they may be talking about her first Slam title - or whether she really is too nice to succeed at the highest level.
- HERALD ON SUNDAY