By SELENA ROBERTS
Published: August 29, 2005
UNDER an expansive pink-and-blue canopy, there were purple pillows tossed on the floor of Manhattan's Town Tennis Club in a meeting room that was lavishly decorated in half Oprah, half genie bottle. The perfect setting for a little girl talk.
Serena Williams, who is often displaying a new outfit, is formidable in the tennis rankings, and the celebrity ones.
Dozens of teenagers in braces and braids plopped in front of a vanilla couch on a stage and watched an episode of "The O.C." on two flat-screen television sets, killing time before the arrival of their new best friend, Maria Sharapova.
Aboard her famously endless legs, Sharapova walked into the Nike-sponsored gab session with the quality of a magic beanstalk: growing, still growing.
"I found out from March I grew a whole inch," said Sharapova, who at 18 was unofficially 6 feet 2 inches at press time.
Her growth spurt has been transcendent. She has developed at Polaroid speed from a Siberian waif to an all-American cover girl, from an athlete produced out of her father's vision to an iPod-toting teen ranked No. 57 on the Forbes Celebrity 100 list. Even better, she enters the United States Open, which begins today, seeded No. 1.
It would be an unimaginable rise if it didn't sound so familiar.
Once, Serena and Venus Williams were hatched from their father's imagination amid the desolation of Compton, Calif. Once, they were the young wonders who traveled to Florida and left teenage girls everywhere mimicking their beaded hair.
Sharapova and Serena Williams, in particular, are remarkably alike in their improbable journeys and oversized fame, in their fashion obsessions and intense playing styles, in their dramatics on court and revealing poses in magazines.
But is there room for two on Madison Avenue? To happy marketers, yes. To Serena? Maybe no.
Sharapova is the first player to come along in the Williams era to challenge Serena for celebrity supremacy. Certainly other Russian 'ovas have had sex appeal, but Sharapova is different from the other Annas. She wins matches, and does so with the kind of squealing ferocity that Serena once claimed as her original style.
Is Sharapova stealing Serena's look? If Serena is offended, good for tennis.
"It's good drama," said Dean Bonham, a sports industry consultant. "When they play, they provide a heightened awareness about their sport. It's a win-win for fans and corporations."
It may sound superficial in nature, but if Serena is feeling snubbed in the race for paparazzi affection, there is one way to turn the attention back on herself: win.
This will require practice, consistency and fitness - areas of weakness for Serena of late. But if her inner actress asks, "What's my motivation?" then her answer has to be, "Sharapova."
This may be a rivalry rooted in the competition for the lens, but there is finally a little string tension between rivals after years of love and love between the Williams sisters.
For years, spectators were uncomfortable - and at times irritated - watching Serena and Venus in a Williams repeat for the major titles. For years, Serena could maintain her high-gloss image as the sport's main attraction even while taking breaks for acting gigs and injuries, in that order.
Serena can ask herself: "What's Maria won? One major?" She has a long way to go to catch Serena's seven.
Distance is relative. On the Forbes list, Sharapova, the highest-ranking female sports figure, topped Serena in celebrity clout by five spots.
Serena is generally dismissive of Sharapova - a true sign that she cares about who's who on the hot sheets. In an interview with The Miami Herald this spring, Serena explained how she doesn't pay attention to the fashion of Maria, her Nike peer, because, "She wears a lot of stuff the other girls wear."
Labeling someone a fashion commoner is an uppercut in gal-speak. And in defense of her own overabundant fame, Serena added: "You guys don't realize, but I have a fashion company. I'm working on a really intense line for the fall. I'm an actress. I'm working on an animation series. I'm working on so much stuff.
"Not only her, but if you ask me about other people, I don't really think about other people, because I really have to focus on me. I don't have any problem with her. I don't think about her. I don't have time."
Sharapova, more than anyone before her, is capable of changing Serena's schedule. Sharapova, more than Serena, has revealed her priority to be tennis.
"She has had the ability to say no," Max Eisenbud, Sharapova's agent, said last week at the Town Tennis Club. "She'll say no to the private plane that will take her to present at the MTV music awards. Most people can't lay off that, but she has her priorities. That's not to say she won't go to the ESPY's and have a great time, but that's enough for her. She doesn't need to be everywhere all the time."
She does what she wants. And last week, that meant spending time with a few teenagers from New York-area Y.M.C.A.'s and Boys and Girls Clubs.
They gabbed about education, about bad hair and about social choices. Then she was off, walking down a hallway, growing before everyone's eyes, looming larger as a rival to Serena's domain.