Join Date: Jun 2004
Maria a smash hit in tennis' fishbowl
By Douglas Robson, special for USA TODAY
NEW YORK It's one thing to win Wimbledon, the biggest trophy in tennis. Quite another to live with it.
That is the tricky road of risk and reward Maria Sharapova must navigate as she takes aim at the U.S. Open this week wearing the Wimbledon crown and the more burdensome mantle of The New Face in Women's Tennis.
"It is tough," says the Siberian-born, American-trained teen, whose stunning 6-1, 6-4 upset of Serena Williams in July's Wimbledon final unleashed the irrepressible forces of money, fame and celebrity. "A lot of people want a piece of me, of victory."
It's not just the hordes of fans who now recognize her model-good looks and hound her for autographs. It's not the paparazzi who invade her privacy by trying to snap cameos in uncompromising positions. It's not the news of her every move splashed across the Internet instantaneously to every reach of the world.
Mostly, it's the weight of expectation.
"Yes, a lot more people are expecting me to win all the time," says the leggy, flaxen-haired prodigy, seeded No. 7 at the U.S. Open. "But you can't win everything. In tennis, there is only one winner. Everyone else is considered a loser. It's part of the game. That's why I try to work hard and get better to make sure I do not lose."
Lose she will, as she did in all three tournaments she entered since becoming the third-youngest winner in Wimbledon's 127 years. That included her loss to 81st-ranked American Mashona Washington in New Haven, Conn., her first loss to someone outside the top 50 since Sharapova broke into the top 100 in 2000.
But the focus, determination and self-awareness Sharapova continues to display are why many observers believe the 17-year-old can cope with the onslaught ahead.
"I think she's been bred to be ready," U.S. Federation Cup captain Zina Garrison says.
Ready or not, her time has come. Mariamania is here.
Her vivacious personality, maturity and poise not to mention a smash-mouth game that, like her 6-foot frame, has not reached full development have already catapulted her into the realm of one-name wonders like Anna, Serena and Monica.
"Maria" no longer needs elaboration.
"I've seen Mariamania all over the place," says her agent, Max Eisenbud.
This has been a busy summer for a player with just four career titles and still without a driver's license. In the days immediately following her Wimbledon victory, Sharapova appeared on Live With Regis and Kelly, NBC's Today show, CBS' The Early Show and MTV's Total Request Live.
She kept commitments to appear at a charity event for the public summer camp program in New Haven, Conn., and to play a World TeamTennis match in Newport Beach, Calif. She did shoots for Italian Vogue and Hello! magazine, both running spreads on the Russian star.
The first round of post-Wimbledon whirlwind left her so depleted she pulled out of a scheduled tournament in Los Angeles in July.
"I was really exhausted," she says, explaining she had been on the road for 10 weeks in a row. "I was just like, 'I'm too tired to do anything.' People wanted me to go out and party, and I said, 'I'm so tired. I'll party later.' "
Sharapova already has a contract with the modeling arm of IMG, her Cleveland-based management company, and endorsement deals with Prince, Nike and Speedminton, a product that combines tennis, badminton and racquetball.
More recently, she signed a mid-seven-figure global marketing contract with Motorola Inc. The deal is a clever tie-in to her failed attempt to make a phone call to her mother after winning Wimbledon, which was broadcast live to millions. She'll be conducting clinics and making appearances for the telecommunications giant, as she did at New York's Central Park on Aug. 19.
"When you win Wimbledon, for a month or two, it's totally chaotic," says Spain's Conchita Martinez, who beat Martina Navratilova to win Wimbledon, her only major, in 1994. "You're completely busy. Maria's really young, and she's going to have a lot of people knocking on her door. It's going to be hard to stay focused."
Sharapova admits that popularity has its rewards and risks.
"I do feel like I'm being pulled in many different directions," Sharapova says.
If Mariamania has arrived, her close-knit group of handlers has taken pains to make sure their jewel does not become overexposed.
Sharapova's team has turned down David Letterman's show, interview requests with major publications, commercial deals and innumerable celebrity invitations.
"She could have gone on private jets all over the place to cool events," Eisenbud says of the post-Wimbledon demand, "but we just had to say no."
In addition to dropping out of the Los Angeles tournament, Sharapova spent several days holed up at home in July. After playing just two events over a six-week span, Sharapova spent two weeks before the Open tune-up in New Haven working on fundamentals at her base in Bradenton, Fla.
She clings to the center of her personal entourage, which includes her California-based coach, Robert Lansdorp, her omnipresent father, Yuri, and her mother, Yelena, whom Sharapova says is her "best friend."
It's all part of the effort to keep things the same even though they never will.
"I try to stick to the people who were with me before I won and who knew me and believed in me before I won," Sharapova says. "My parents are the two people who have been with me my whole life. They have believed in me. What they have been through with me is amazing."
But that cocoon of security is sure to be tested in the media glare of New York, as well as in the months to come.
Lansdorp, who helped groom the young games of champions Pete Sampras, Tracy Austin and Lindsay Davenport, says his latest star pupil seems to fall into the "crossover" category of an athlete whose talent and panache captures the public's imagination.
"The adulation with Maria is more than with Pete or with Tracy, who didn't have all the stuff that comes with it, the modeling, the Kournikova look-alike comparisons," Lansdorp says.
Risks and pressures
How does out-of-nowhere success or sudden fame alter the personal and professional landscape?
Pam Shriver was just 16 and in her first year on the pro tour when she reached the U.S. Open final in 1978. "My family and I were astonished," says Shriver, now a TV commentator.
The Hall of Fame player was so nervous from all the sudden scrutiny she lost her first match after the Open in straight sets.
"I almost hyperventilated," Shriver says.
Austin, the pigtailed prodigy of the late 1970s who won the Open at 16 in 1979, was already one of the top players in the world with big titles under her belt; she was accustomed to the pressure of big-time tennis.
Sharapova, in contrast, was seeded No. 13 when she stormed to the Wimbledon title. She had never beaten anyone in the top five until she upset Lindsay Davenport in the semifinals.
"Now it's going to be, 'So you've won one. When are you going to win another one?' " says Austin, a TV analyst. "I don't think she's ready to win Slams on a consistent basis, and the public doesn't understand that."
On a personal level, many young major winners are unnerved by a loss of their "space."
"I didn't like people looking at me all the time, walking by and saying my name as if I was deaf and couldn't hear them," says France's Mary Pierce, who won the first of her two career Slams in 1995, at the French Open. "I was 20 years old so there was a lot of things that were difficult for me. The only good thing about it was that I actually won the tournament."
Confidence of a breakthrough
And that is the goal, after all, to keep on winning.
"I'm probably a different player because I got a lot of confidence with all my victories," says Belgium's Justine Henin-Hardenne, the top seed at Flushing Meadow and winner of three of the last six majors. "I feel it on the court and I think the other players, they see it, also."
As Austin says of the Wimbledon breakthrough, "It could make (Sharapova) more hungry to be No. 1 faster." Asked about her goals for Flushing Meadow, Sharapova says without missing a beat, "I want to win it. I just want to go out and play great tennis and show everyone how I can compete."
It's that kind of focus, fearlessness and imperviousness as she displayed at Wimbledon that sets her apart.
"I think she's completely ready," Lansdorp says. "She's a sharp girl who knows how to control what she wants. Maria is going to do what Maria wants to do. She will succeed the way Maria wants to succeed.
"She's a lot more mature than people think she is."
Sharapova insists she has not changed, that the demands will not deter her from her desire to be No. 1 and win more Slams.
She's aware of how off-court distractions such as former No. 1 Serena Williams' fashion designing and acting gigs can impede on-court preparation.
"I don't think I model enough for it to be a distraction," Sharapova says sternly. "I know my limits. I know when to work hard."
Now she will know life in the fishbowl, although it's an American phrase with which she is not yet acquainted.
"No, I've never heard of that," she says, pausing, then laughing.