Time for Sharapova to narrow her focus
Maria Sharapova is first and foremost a tennis player. There’s no doubt about that. You don’t get to No. 1 in the world, win two Grand Slams and more than a dozen tournaments by the age of 20 without having dedication to your craft.
Her desire to win is unquestioned, and she’s one of the handful of truly steely competitors on the WTA Tour. But the idea that Sharapova’s focus is so laser sharp that her occasional dalliances into modeling or her commitments to the slew of companies she endorses doesn’t take away from her game is getting a bit harder to swallow. Particularly in light of her latest, and most puzzling venture.
Sharapova has decided to add television producer to her list of growing titles. According to Variety, she’s set to produce a sports-themed drama for the CW network that will revolve around the world of women’s professional tennis. Clearly she’ll be comfortable with the subject matter. Still, why is she doing this? It’s unlikely she’ll be consumed with the day-to-day operations of the show, and is probably doing this more as a vanity project (although there will undoubtedly be the obligatory cameos). But it is another distraction.
Let’s hope that her name is being attached to this project just to add a little legitimacy to the show. Let’s hope finding a better lead-in for Gossip Girl won’t be much of an imposition on Sharapova’s time. Because face it – if this were Venus or Serena Williams taking on this venture, the derision over their misplaced priorities would loud and merciless.
Not Maria, though. She gets a pass because she vehemently denies it has an affect on her tennis. She says all her extracurriculars are just fun stuff she does during down time and the off season. Sure she’s a self-proclaimed businesswoman, but her first order of business will always be pummeling her ground strokes and taking home the winner’s check. By downplaying her interest in her diversions and claiming that her professional dedication never wavers, it’s never seen as a reason for poor performance. Venus and Serena trumpet their affection for their side projects. They’re not bashful in their defiance of being just tennis players, so it’s fair game to hammer them for it. This is particularly true for Serena who gets crucified for being unprepared and out of shape when she does decide to show up for an event.
Sharapova’s genetics protect her from suffering the same ridicule. The girl would probably have to spend a year on her couch married to a quart of Haagen-Dazs before she even started looking the least bit chunky. So she’ll always pass the eye test. But what if the injuries she started suffering this year and spotty performance, particularly late in tournaments, were a result of her not spending the requisite time on the practice court and in the gym? What if she did get out shape? At least, out of the shape a professional athlete needs to be in. What if she filmed one too many commercials, did a few too many photo shoots, and didn’t spend enough time maintaining the rhythm on her serve? A serve that was once a huge weapon, and mysteriously became a liability in the latter half of this season. The numbers don’t lie. Sharapova only played 11 tournaments so far this year (the same as the allegedly unmotivated Serena and two less than the mercurial Venus) and won just one of them. And for the first time in her career she started suffering head-scratching losses to players ranked well below her. Possible comers like Aravane Rezai, Agnieszka Radwanska, and Victoria Azarenka. The only reason Sharapova qualified for the WTA Championships is because Venus pulled out and, outside of Justine Henin, women’s tennis is mired in a pool of parity.
So how does adding television producer to her resume return her to the Grand Slam glory she claims to so desperately covet? She’s certainly entitled to use her exceptional marketability to line her pockets. Anyone in her position would gladly do the same. Somebody has to be the highest-paid female athlete on the planet and she’s as good a candidate as any. And let’s be honest, that’s what her television aspirations are all about. But she shouldn’t be a hypocrite about it. A player at her age that wants to rack up titles and get back to No. 1 doesn’t entertain fantasies of becoming d**k Wolf. It’s a guarantee that Henin isn’t spending time working on a screenplay.
With the magazine spreads and commercials, at least Sharapova’s keeping her most prized asset – her looks – in the public consciousness. That’s what makes this latest foray so bewildering. Producing a television show on second-tier network, no matter how little involvement she ultimately has, hardly seems worth the effort unless it’s something she really wants to do.
And if it is, then fine. But own up to it. She should stop pretending that these side projects are just little larks that don’t take up any of her time or energy, and admit that she likes doing things outside of tennis that have started to take a toll on her ability to play at her highest level. She maybe an endorsement machine, but Sharapova is still flesh and blood. And a girl has got to know her limitations.
Jon Levey is a senior editor at TENNIS magazine.