Open Insider: could romance be behind the impressive tournaments of Sharapova, Serena and Azarenka?
Maria Sharapova was asked to describe her first week at the Australian Open. "Steamy," she said. Say what? "Steamy," she repeated.
- From Will Swanton
- FOX SPORTS
- January 22, 2013 12:31PM
Sharapova turned to her IMG agent.
"You know what I'm talking about, Max," she said.
Now, it can be safely assumed that the 25-year-old Sharapova was not revealing a fling with her 41-year-old IMG agent, Max Eisenbud.
You know what I'm talking about, Max.
We shot a look around the room. Did she say Mats? Mats Wilander had indeed been looking pretty chipper in the media restaurant at lunch. Not him.
Max Mirnyi? Had she fallen for a big-serving Belarussian? There's a kid in the juniors called Maximilian Marterer, but with a world ranking of 1228 .. no.
Sharapova had turned all Kim Basinger from 9-1/2 weeks.
Eisenbud grinned and so did the rest of us. We all knew the inference: Sharapova's romance with 21-year-old Bulgarian player Grigor Dimitrov.
Sharapova plays Ekaterina Makarova in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open on Tuesday.
Now, this is a changed woman. We remember Sharapova from last year. At the French Open, for instance, she had all the vibes of Hilary Clinton addressing her national security adviser. A laugh-a-minute, she was not. In Melbourne she's walking around like Rodney Dangerfield in Caddyshack, good to see you, good to see you: Hey, Max, you must have been something before electricity.
She's handing out her range of lollies, called Sugarpova, to anyone and everyone prepared to put up with the resulting obesity and tooth decay. She has been criticised by do-gooders for being solely responsible for a whole new generation of fat kids - where's the GlutenFreePova? - but nothing is troubling her.
She's seeing the sights of Melbourne, she's started a Twitter account with the introductory tweet of, "You're ultimate sugarmama has arrived." She's posting photos of herself, she's kissing babies, she's skipping through the draw, she's posting messages about "a cuddle buddy."
You know what she's talking about, Max.
All of which is providing a very compelling argument for a romance-enhancing performance. In this, she is not alone. The top three women's seeds are all loved-up to the eyeballs. There's Sharapova and Dimitrov, who used to be linked to Serena Williams, who is now involved with her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, who also used to be Dimitrov's coach, who
let's start again.
Let's KISS: keep It Simple, Stupid. There's Sharapova and Dimitrov. There's Williams and Mouratoglou. There's Victoria Azarenka and Redfoo, the guy from LFMAO. This is no longer the Australian Open. It's the love shack, baby.
None of these women have stared down the barrel of a camera and confirmed the relationships, but put it this way, the lack of denials were deafening from the start.
They are the nods and the winks. If Sharapova was not involved with Dimitrov, her formidable publicity machine (led by Max) would have knocked it on the head a while ago. Ditto for Williams. She tried to rubbish the locker-room gossip when talk first emerged, but when photographs emerged of her on a boat with Mouratoglou in Mauritius, the game was up.
Williams wore a white bikini and Mouratoglou had his arm around her. Either they were a couple, or Mouratoglou was implementing coaching techniques with which we are unfamiliar.
Azarenka's man is Stefan Gordy, otherwise known as Redfoo from LFMAO.
"I don't like to kiss and tell," he said this week. "But we are really close, and she's a very special person and I'm very happy in my life right now."
While everyone else in the love shack shies away from speaking on their private lives, Redfoo appears willing to shout from the rooftops - "she's my girlfriend, can you believe it!"
We first crossed Redfoo's path at the US Open last year. He met Sam Stosur and Azarenka and while most of the men's players greeted him with the bemusement of shaking someone's hand who was in fancy-dress when the invitation quite clearly stated smart-casual, he kept popping up at Azarenka's matches.
Were they an item? A tremendously-dedicated athlete with a free-spirited musician whose clothing and hairstyle appear to feature at the entrance to most McDonalds? Yes. Most dedicated athletes wish they could be free-spirited musicians in a band. Most clowns, even the most brilliant, wish to be taken seriously.
Williams has not always floated through tournaments like she's Leonardo DiCaprio on the bow of the Titanic.
The Serena Slam of 2002-2003 was fuelled by heartbreak. "The guy tore my heart in half," she wrote in her autobiography, My Life: Queen Of The Court.
"The worst part was that he left me thinking it was me. He left me thinking that I was ugly. So I decided that tennis would be my salvation. I would get so-and-so to regret how he had treated me. I wanted him to see me everywhere, to stay in this guy's face, to be a constant reminder of what he had, to rise above his shabby treatment. It was all about lifting myself from the dirt he left my lying in."
Now the opposite is true. She started working with Mouratoglou after a galling loss to Virginie Razzano last year. Since then, she has won Wimbledon, the Olympics, the US Open and the WTA Finals. She will return to being world No.1 if she makes the final in Melbourne.
She was a weeping, broken mess that day in Paris, and it was painful to see.
It seems an eternity ago. She has lost one match since.
Sharapova is the only member of the love shack in action on Tuesday.
"I think it's very manageable," she said of dating another tennis player.
"We have a very hectic lifestyle and travelling schedule, but in a way, this is what we do and we have to accept it. Relationships are important in life. Tennis only lasts as long as your body allows, and there is another step in life - relationships. It's a matter of how you think and manage it."
Dimitrov manages it by staring daggers at those who raise the topic.
"People love gossip," he told us.
"Who doesn't? But I believe it's a privacy invasion. I don't think that's right."
"It's not because we're different, but because it's not right to athletes in general. It should be forbidden to even be asked."
He took a moment to reflect. Unless we imagined it, there was a glint in his eye. We thought he might go cartwheeling through the press centre at Melbourne Park or break into a Peter Allen song. Maybe a bit of Marvin Gaye and Elton John. Grab a microphone, whisk Sharapova out of the women's locker room and sing, "You Can Leave Your Hat On".
Finally, he conceded: "It is what it is, right?"
You know what he's talking about, Max.