Tennis: Sharapova holds court
Maria Sharapova often feels like an entertainer in a circus.
The superstar Russian, who is the headline act at the ASB Classic starting tomorrow, certainly made a big impression in her first media session yesterday.
The 23-year-old is probably the most photographed sportswoman on the planet. She's a genuine global celebrity and has heard it all before at thousands of press conferences and interviews but was candid, refreshing and charismatic.
She seems aware of her status and more than happy to play her part, a real contrast with some of her sullen and serious contemporaries.
"At the end of the day, all of us are entertainers," she says. "People buy tickets to watch us play and it's like a circus - we go from one destination to another."
It would be easy to see her in the role of court jester, as the relaxed Sharapova showed some comic touches to put the press in their place. There was a real sharpness and wit, honed by the years of interviews.
"Are you saying tennis is not my thing?" she quizzically asked one reporter who suggested, with her height, she could have been a netballer.
Maria Sharapova Inc is a worldwide brand, used to sell clothing, cosmetics and courts from Beijing to Budapest. Apart from her tennis feats, she has been with IMG models since 2003 and graced countless magazine covers. Her appeal has only increased with her recent engagement to NBA star Sacha Vujacic.
But Sharapova does her best to downplay the glamour.
"It all seems so glamorous at a red carpet event with five layers of makeup and you look amazing," she says. "But often I am back in my pyjamas within 30 minutes, talking with my friends and family. And the next day you are back out sweating at practice. I think it's more how people see it than the actual reality."
She also strives to convince that life as Maria Sharapova, or 'Masha' as she is known in Russia, is white-picket-fence normal.
"I do a lot of normal things. I go to the movies, I shop, I cook, I enjoy the little things in life. I walk around town."
She will never be able to be anonymous but that sounds like a small price to pay.
"I don't mind when people recognise me and ask for an autograph," she admits. "Obviously when you are eating a bowl of bolagnese pasta and have got meat sauce all over your mouth and they are asking for a picture, that is a different story. But, generally, it's pretty neat when people recognise you and respect you for the work you put in."
The relaxed nature of New Zealand is an oft-quoted tale from overseas visitors but Sharapova has been genuinely surprised by how carefree Kiwis seem to be.
"They will stop you and say, 'hello' and usually you are ready to pull out the pen and paper for an autograph but they just tell you how happy they are that I am here and really respectful - that is nice considering we are so busy."
Over the five days she's spent in Auckland, Sharapova has shown the focus that made her a champion; the intensity that saw her win Wimbledon as a 17-year-old; the desire that gets you 22 titles and three grand slams and the work ethic that brings you back from career-threatening injuries. She refuses to court distractions and has not faced the media once apart from the scheduled hour at yesterday's draw. This was a key element of the pre-contract negotiations.
"If I wanted to, I could do an interview every single hour of the day, but that is not really in my best interests and I am not that kind of person," she says.
She has trained twice a day, realising it's important to adjust to the humid conditions after coming from a northern winter. She spends little time in the player lounges and chose to skip the official New Years Eve player's function, instead dining at the Skytower with her entourage. There has also been no time for the usual helicopter ride or harbour cruise other players are sometimes offered and, apart from the extra security detail and two designated drivers, there have been no special requests from team Sharapova.
"It is too embarrassing to say I haven't done anything else?" she says of her time in Auckland. "My priority was to get used to the conditions and the court and have a couple of practice sessions a day."
There was a trip to see Little Fockers on Thursday and the "big foodie" has enjoyed the wide variety of cuisine in the city of sails.
Her focus is key if she is to make a climb back up the rankings. Although she would not explicitly admit it, it's obvious she doesn't see herself as No18 in the world and wants to redress the situation as soon as possible, starting at the ASB Classic. It has been a long, twisted road back after the shoulder injuries that saw her plummet as low as 126 two years ago.
"I kept my head up," Sharapova says of her long exile from the game. "I was pretty confident I would be back - although I thought it would be faster. If you let tough experiences put you down, then it's pretty tough to get back up."
Despite losing some power in her serve, the emergence of young stars and re-emergence of some old rivals, the 1.88m Sharapova is adamant she will be a major player again.
"I have come back from an awful lot, something that could have taken me away from the game. I am back on the court, going well and I have to build on it little by little.
"If I am able to win a grand slam after my injury, it would be my greatest achievement in my career."
The first step will be an opening match at the ASB Classic against Carla Suarez Navarro. The two have never met, and the 22-year-old Spaniard is a tricky proposition, with the pedigree of two grand slam quarter-final appearances and a one-handed backhand that resembles Justin Henin.
But the circus will roll on, and Maria should be providing great entertainment late into the week.