SOCHI -- Of the many boldfaced names floating through the hotel here housing NBC's on-air talent for the Sochi Games -- I can confirm Scott Hamilton is as cheerful at breakfast as he is on the air and Johnny Weir is quite skilled with a cappuccino machine -- the most famous name of all has never competed in nor covered a previous Winter Olympics.
Maria Sharapova was hired by NBC to serve as an Olympic correspondent, though the definition and responsibilities of an NBC Olympic correspondent range from Ryan Seacrest-level reporting to Mary Carillo. Sharapova, in an interview with SI.com on Friday, said she approached her NBC gig more as an ambassador for Sochi than as a sports television assignment or tryout for a future broadcasting gig.
"We never had a proper conversation about what my job description would be here but I had a lot of experiences in my childhood in this city. So on a larger scale I wanted to showcase the city to an American audience and take them around certain spots that I remembered from my childhood," said Sharapova, who was born in Siberia and moved to Sochi as a child before eventually settling in Florida at the age of 7. "I wanted [viewers] to experience Russian cuisine and give them some lighthearted pieces on the city... It's not just about television for me here; it's much more important."
Among her NBC segments: Touring Russia House in Sochi with Ato Boldon and traveling around the city with Carillo. As far as Boldon is concerned, Sharapova could have a big future in television. "Oh, there is no doubt she could do TV in a second," said Boldon, who is working as a correspondent for NBC in Sochi and is a sensational track and field analyst for the network. "The camera loves her and she is smart and very articulate. She is not too self-absorbed and I think has a good sense of who she is and who she is not. I remember once hearing her say she wanted to be a Bond girl. I doubt she would say that now."
Added NBC Olympics executive producer Jim Bell, who hired Sharapova: "Maria has tremendous potential in television when her tennis career ends and I think she'll have opportunities to consider beyond the tennis announcing booth."
Sharapova said she wanted to bring a "warmth" to the American audience about Sochi because of all the questions leading up to the games. I asked her if she thought the initial Western press coverage of Sochi -- filled with stories of incomplete hotel accommodations, gay rights issues and security worries -- were fair.
"Everyone that I have talked to has been pleasantly surprised because everyone has been hearing a lot of talk about all those issues," she said. "We can start with security: I think everyone has been thinking about this since they got here but security has been strict but very fair. I think everyone understands you want to feel safe and the committee has provided that. I think the lines have even been smoother [to get to and enter venues] than in London. This is also one of the most compact Olympics, so there's not much traffic."
Though Sharapova was only contracted for the first week of the games, NBC got a lot out of its correspondent in a short amount of time. The NBC Sports Network aired the piece she and Carillo did on touring Sochi less than 24 hours after it was initially shown on NBC. Sharapova was also part of the opening ceremony as one of the torch runners; she carried the torch into Fisht Olympic Stadium before handing it to Olympic champion pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva.
Said Carillo: "I love that old Ethel Merman quote about the young Mary Martin: 'She's okay, if you like talent.' Maria's a pro. She's been very successful and famous for a long time and has an enormous amount of style and self-possession. The Sharapova brand is global and growing. If she ever wanted to shift to television she could, easily and well. My guess is that she will go more in the way of Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Andre Agassi -- champions who have spent years building the rest of their lives around their passions such as clothing design, school building, etc. Athletic excellence as a springboard, not an anchor."
Sharapova said she enjoyed her experience with NBC and gained insight about television production. Beyond that, she made no declaration about a television career, and at 26 and the world's fifth-ranked tennis player, she's years away from making a decision about what she does after tennis. On Sunday she left the Olympics to begin training for her current job. She is scheduled to compete in a WTA event in Indian Wells, Ca., which begins on March 5.