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Old Aug 29th, 2004, 03:25 PM   #26
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In America, the beautiful
Wimbledon champion plots career course, her entourage claims she's the anti-Kourikova, as her ability-and looks-open every door


August 29, 2004

They are here from "Entertainment Tonight" and they are here from "Access Hollywood," which means, of course, that they must also be here from "Extra." So the representatives of the grand triumvirate of celebrity news magazines are all here and are all lined up in a neat little row behind the blue velvet ropes, each awaiting their 16 seconds of airtime with the six-foot blonde in the designer sweatpants.

They are here to film the blonde in her element. They are here because she is that rarest of pop-cultural convergences: She is fresh and she is talented and she is drop-dead Madison Avenue gorgeous. It is mid-August; it hasn't yet been two months since Maria Sharapova stunned Serena Williams at Centre Court and became, at 17 years old, "the longest shot ever to win Wimbledon," according to tennis historian Bud Collins. And the peddlers in the interminable sagas of Britney and Justin and Paris and JLo would all like their exclusives, thank you very much.

They've been instructed by the publicist to fall in line, to act as if this were a red carpet at Mann's Chinese Theatre and not a hard court in Central Park, not the staging area at a tennis clinic for inner-city youth, and this is fine with them, because this is the world from which they hail, and they would like to think the blonde belongs to their world now as much as she belongs to professional tennis.

And who's to say they aren't right?

They would like to ask Maria, please, who is her favorite movie star, and has she met Kirsten Dunst, and they're very sorry they have to ask this, but is there someone special in your life? And down the line goes Sharapova, on automatic pilot, delivering bulleted answers: Julia Roberts, and no, she hasn't, and her personal life remains personal, thank you very much.

And who's to say these are inappropriate questions?

"She's an overnight sensation, and that doesn't happen very often, and it's all fun," Collins said. "She's a goddess right now. I just hope it stays fun."

Here comes Maria Sharapova through the looking-glass, a newborn swept into the glare of celebrity. She is the story of the moment heading into the U.S. Open. She is giggly and lithe and classically beautiful, a fact that deserves mention if only because it is part of package that she proudly presents, if only because it is the thing that may allow her to become the most recognized female athlete on the planet.

But then, this beauty is also what could allow the cabal of celebrity to swallow her whole.

Dreaming up a dream girl

Let us say that you are in the business of sports marketing, and let us say that you were to spend the afternoon dreaming up the biography of the utterly bankable female athlete. Let us say you begin with a little girl born in, oh, say Siberia, to which her parents fled in order to escape the devastating effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

And let us say the father works in the oil fields and scrimps and saves and moves his wife and young daughter to a resort town on the Black Sea, which is where the daughter picks up tennis, using a sawed-off adult tennis racket because, in the midst of a crumbling Soviet empire, no child rackets are available.

And let us say that the daughter plays at a tournament in Moscow at the age of six (or seven, depending on the teller of the tale), and here is where a legendary pro - Martina Navratilova - tells the father, whose name is Yuri, to take his child to Nick Bollettieri's renowned tennis academy in Florida. And let us say the father borrows the money to get to America; he cannot afford to bring his wife, and so it is just he and his daughter at first. And let us say they show up in America with $700 to their name, and the father gets a job as a laborer, and the two of them share a bicycle to get around. And let us say, for the sake of legend, that one night, at around midnight, they travel to the Bollettieri Academy in Bradenton and show up at his doorstep uninvited.

And the rest falls into place.

"The daddy," Nick Bollettieri said, "was a very wise man."

The story is so sweet, so improbable, that it seems almost apocryphal. Some of it is already being embellished: There are a dozen minor variations on the tale, all of which have been reported in various newspapers and magazines. Bollettieri admits, for instance, that Sharapova didn't exactly show up at his academy uninvited. "She was spotted by someone," he said. But even if the story isn't entirely true - even if it's only one-third true - it's still remarkable, isn't it? It still carries that redolence of the American Dream, doesn't it?

Let us say, then, that seven years after arriving at Bollettieri's doorstep, this girl wins Wimbledon, defeating the most formidable player in the game. And afterward, on Centre Court, she tries to reach her mother on her cellular phone, and can't get any reception. And the world coos, and the suits at a worldwide technology company watch this on television and say to each other, "Can someone get this girl a phone that works?" And then they sign her to a major endorsement deal six weeks later with Motorola.

"Potential is one of the dirtiest words in sports," said sports marketing expert Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based SportsCorp Ltd. "But if she can continue to perform, her potential is essentially unlimited."

If this sounds familiar, it's because we've been through this before. Anna Kournikova was 16 when she reached the semifinals at Wimbledon (in 1997), and if you've ever done a Google search, you know what happened next. Anna Kournikova - struggling with chronic injuries and chronic distractions - became Anna, pop-culture princess and teenage sexpot flouncing about like a diva while seeming to forget that it was tennis which had led her to this position in the first place.

And now Anna is a queen of the tabloids, a regular on Page Six and in US Weekly and on the E! Network. Anna is a millionaire and Anna (who never won a pro tournament) no longer plays tennis, but who needs tennis when you've got the cover of Maxim and you've got Enrique Iglesias at your side?

Sharapova won't forget tennis, though. This is what those who know her keep saying, that she is the anti-Anna, even as she appears in the pages of the Italian edition of Vogue, even as her agent at IMG, Max Eisenbud, admits he can't imagine Sharapova still playing tennis at the age of 30. This is the girl, after all, who always seemed to find the motivation when her coach in California, Robert Lansdorp, would lay down 10- and 20-dollar bills at various spots on the court, and tell her she could keep the bills if she could hit them with her returns.

But this is also the girl who has always been oblivious to outside influences. This is the girl who carries textbooks from tournament to tournament, who clearly recognizes the burden of celebrity and seems to have planned for this contingency since the night before she left for America, when her nerve-wracked grandmother found her serenely laying out her clothes for the plane ride the next day.

This is also the girl whose coach only penciled her into the semifinals at Wimbledon.

"Champions sort of have that thing," said Lansdorp, who's based in Los Angeles, and has coached Tracy Austin and Pete Sampras, among others. "Tracy had it, and she had an 'easy life.' Sampras had it, and he had an 'easy life.' It has nothing to do with their background. It's just what they have. They have no fear."

Oh so American

And yet how can she fight this, the oh-so-American lure of celebrity for celebrity's sake? How does she stand a chance in the gilded era of garbage culture, of Hilton sisters and Joe Millionaires?

She's ready-made for this life, after all. Sharapova is so essentially Americanized - in her dress, in her taste for Palm Pilots and Louis Vuitton bags and Marc Jacobs blouses, in her rapid-fire speech patterns - that at least two other young Russians on the women's tennis tour have declared that she isn't really one of them, that she is American by default.

"She was always with her dad in the corner somewhere," said another Russian professional, Eleva Bovina, who played briefly at Bollettieri's academy. "She was always hanging around by herself. She was a little more outside from everybody else."

"I know where I'm from," Sharapova said. "I know where I was born."

But in a way, the others are right. She is no longer one of them. Not since Wimbledon. Sharapova could retire tomorrow and trade on her beauty and her celebrity for the next 10 years, and walk away with a fortune. It's been proven; it's been done before. Anna, anyone?

What about her father? This, say those who know the family, is where the difference between Sharapova and Kournikova lies.

"Anna's very special to me," said Bollettieri, who coached both players. "But the difference here is that the daddy listened, and turned Maria over to me. Mr. Kournikova would never turn his daughter over to anybody. But then again, Anna's making millions a year, so who's right and who's wrong?"

Who's right? Who's wrong? Who's to say Anna Kournikova herself isn't the personification of the American Dream?

In the end, it will be up to Sharapova herself to decide. Lansdorp insists she wants not one title, not a top-10 ranking, but the No. 1 ranking. But her place in the sport is different after Wimbledon, as Sharapova discovered last week, when she showed up in New Haven, Conn. On Tuesday night, Sharapova double-faulted a dozen times and lost in three sets to the No. 81-ranked player in the world, Mashona Washington.

"When you double-fault like that," an elated Washington said, "sometimes it's a sign of nerves."

Into the media room came Sharapova, her blonde hair still damp from the shower.

"I can't be perfect all the time," she said. "It's all about learning, and at 17, I have a lot to learn. I'm not at the biggest point in my career."

This is both true, and it is entirely false. It is true within the microcosm of professional tennis and it is entirely false within the context of celebrity. Never again will Sharapova be so dauntingly swollen with potential.

On Thursday afternoon at a news conference at the National Tennis Center in Flushing, a television reporter asked her about the New York experience, and she mentioned the shopping and the culture and the shows, the non-stop hectic lifestyle, how much she loved it.

Eisenbud was asked what he worried about, what kept him up at night with this one, and he said he had no worries with Maria, none at all. Then he slipped out of the room, in pursuit of the girl of his dreams.

Maria Sharapova file

Age: 17

Birthplace: Nyagan, Russia

Grand slam history: Became youngest singles winner at Wimbledon in July ... The Open will be her eighth event ... Has a 17-6 career record.

Career: Has four singles titles ... Currently has WTA rank of No. 7, her highest ... Is 0-3 against countrywoman Anastasia Myskina ... Finalist at 2002 Junior Australian Open.

Odd fact: Off-court interests include movies; she lists "Pearl Harbor" as her favorite.

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