"I won Wimbledon in 1966 and 1967 and I wasn't paid anything. Well, I got $14 for expenses."
-Billie Jean King
It is 9 in the morning and already sweltering when 17-year-old Maria Sharapova lifts her arms to get her midriff rubbed. She is at Key Biscayne's Crandon Park Tennis Center shooting a Canon commercial, and the sun is high and her skin is fair, and thus she must be protected. Sharapova stands at the net smoothing her long, golden hair while her makeup artist hoists her top and folds it neatly at the bustline. She slathers Sharapova's lean torso with sunscreen as an entire production crew become dubiously engrossed in the contents of their coffee cups.
"Damn," says one assistant, shaking his head as he sneaks a peek.
Sharapova does not notice the stir she is creating. She is tired. And bored. Filming commercials does not excite her. She understands that it is these sponsorship deals that make her the highest-paid female athlete of all time-she will earn more than $25 million this year-but she would prefer to be playing tennis. At least that is what those close to her say.
"Maria is a competitor," says one of her handlers. "Her priority is not to be on the cover of a magazine. Her priority is to be No. 1 in the world."
Having reached No. 2 in April, Sharapova can attain her goal by repeating her breathtaking 2004 victory at Wimbledon, the moment the world was forced to take notice of the new face of women's tennis. That win, a photogenic upset of Serena Williams capped by a touching moment as Sharapova tried and failed to call her mother on her mobile phone, swept Maria into the hearts of the viewing public and sent a platoon of sponsors into spontaneous heat. Nike, Canon, Motorola, Tag Heuer, Pepsi and Colgate-Palmolive signed Sharapova to multiyear, multimillion-dollar deals, betting her tennis ability married with her cool good looks would make her the ideal spokesperson for the elusive youth demographic.
"She is the typical American teenager," says Richard Booth, the marketing services director for Canon, presumably forgetting that Sharapova is in fact Russian and outearns most CEOs, and that there is nothing typical about being a six-foot blonde with a 108 mph serve.
Still, Sharapova is being packaged and sold as the girl next door, crammed into the box of the friendly, giggly gal who just wants to have fun: Hilary Duff with a forehand. It is an idea echoed by many of her sponsors and the WTA, which credits Sharapova's adorableness with helping it score what some insiders say is a potentially franchise-saving $88 million partnership with Sony Ericsson-a deal the WTA proudly notes is "the largest sponsorship in the history of women's sport and the history of tennis."
"Our players are seen as celebrities," says Larry Scott, CEO and chairman of the WTA. "Flip through the pages of People magazine and you'll see they transcend sport. They are dressing up and being seen. They are waking people up to what it means to be a female athlete."
Sharapova especially. Where the Williams sisters can read as redoubtable and look imposing in evening wear, Sharapova rocks her Versace gowns and is consequently viewed with the same longing and aspiration as Gwyneth Paltrow or Nicole Kidman. "Maria is an icon in progress," says Scott with pride. "She has an aura. Looks and other intangibles are what drive sponsors. And she is very attractive."
Which is to say, should she never reach No. 1, she'll still sell a lot of cell phones. Or in today's case, cameras.
"Make every shot a power shot," Sharapova repeats over and over as she struts before the cameras on the Key Biscayne court.
"A little friendlier, Maria," the director suggests, mopping his brow. "A little more of a smile, okay?"
Sharapova forces a tight grin, then cuts a look to her mother, Yelena, who is sitting under a nearby tent sipping bottled water. Her mom shouts something in Russian, and Sharapova answers in kind.
Sophie Goldschmidt, a representative from the WTA, beams as she watches Sharapova from the sideline. "Maria is almost a brand unto herself," she gushes. "Obviously that is great for us." She pauses for a beat, then hurriedly adds, "And women's tennis."
"Okay, Maria, just a few more times," says the director. Sharapova nods, tosses her gear bag over her shoulder and hits her mark again and again.
"Make every shot a power shot," she says, with varying levels of enthusiasm. Then, finally, she smiles, her face open and tilted toward the camera. "How was that?" she asks. "Supercute," the director answers, grinning, but Sharapova has already looked away.
"Women's tennis is both exciting and disappointing. Any more than one girl on the court is civil war. It is difficult to get them to work together. Females are females. It is the nature of the beast."
THE FIRST thing you need to know about most women tennis players is that they don't want to talk with you. They feel they shouldn't have to. What they do want is to win matches because, by winning, they can transcend tennis and ride the momentum of their best years into a brighter future of fashion and acting and pop stardom. They can become famous, which any player will tell you is more important than being good, because famous lasts. For athletes, good never does.
Used to be, grown-ups played tennis. Then, in 1971, along came Chris Evert, the first girl in a field of women. She was 16, with a ponytail, gold-hoop earrings and a wary smile. Cute, nonthreatening, straight and trained by her father on public courts, Evert was a determined, upstanding young lady America could effortlessly love.
But there were problems. She was a child, and touring wasn't for children. So her mother came along for comfort. Then her agent came too, to protect her from the press and a world that, as a teen, she couldn't fully grasp. The other competitors saw her entourage and predictably decided they should have one too, for appearances, for validity. And so the locker room, once filled with players, became clogged with managers, coaches, agents, publicists and anxious parents. And the clubby, we're-a-sisterhood-of-pioneers atmosphere irretrievably telescoped into petty jealousy and resentment as the cheese wheels got bigger and the elbowroom grew tighter.
Billie Jean King remembers the warning signs. "I tried to get the players to be nice to each other," she says. King wanted to preserve the camaraderie that had made women's pro tennis happen in the first place, in 1970, when she and eight other players signed a $1 contract to form the Virginia Slims, the original women's tour.
"We were so nervous. We were told nobody would ever pay to watch women play. The men wanted us out. So we decided to start our own tour. The first year, singles winners earned $1,800. And that was huge. We were in hog heaven."
As the money grew, so did the envy. Evert thrived, landing unprecedented sponsorships and magazine covers. The new model of what it meant to play women's tennis locked firmly in place. When Evert retired in 1989, the sport, wary of losing the endearing heroine that had made it popular, turned to Jennifer Capriati, then only 13. She was a multimillionaire by her first pro match.
"I was at that Capriati match," remembers Mary Carillo, onetime French Open mixed doubles winner and celebrated tennis commentator. "It was a circus. My gut told me that what I was witnessing was not a good thing." It wasn't. Capriati played well at first, but she struggled with personal and legal issues and quit tennis for several years.
"Sharapova making the kind of money she does is great," adds King. "But there is a trade-off for these girls. They have financial security. But what sort of legacy will they leave? Everything is about outer success. When I was 15, I wanted to be the best at something. Girls today want to be famous. I think all of us realize something isn't quite right with that."
Nobody disputes that women's tennis has changed dramatically in the past few years. TV ratings for the NASDAQ-100 tournament jumped 70% from last year, while overall attendance is ahead of last year's by 40,000, an uptick in interest that most in the industry attribute to the emergence of personalities instead of just players.
What began with Evert and reached staggering numbers with Capriati and found unmatched momentum with the Williams sisters has gone global with Sharapova. Her sponsorships are international, her reach immeasurable, her earnings in the stratosphere.
"I don't think people ever anticipated where she would go," says Nick Bollettieri, coach and founder of the fabled Bollettieri Tennis Academy. "She wasn't a standout at 12 or 13. But she was relentless. She never associated with anybody else on the court, never any clowning around. She knew why she was here."
Sharapova was born in Siberia in 1987. When she was 4, her father, Yuri, introduced her to a friend who was a national tennis champion. Balls were hit. Told his daughter had potential, Yuri sawed off his old wooden racket and began training her. A few years later, at a tennis clinic in Moscow, Martina Navratilova spotted Sharapova and told Yuri that she was so gifted he had to do something. So Yuri took his only child, along with $700 of savings, and moved to a room in a shared apartment in Bradenton, Fla., with the intention of enrolling the then-7-year-old Maria in Bollettieri's academy. She was, as it turned out, too young, but Yuri decided to stay in Florida. He learned English and worked odd jobs to pay for balls and rackets. Yuri could not afford a car, so he would bicycle to the practice courts, Maria riding behind, hands wrapped around his waist. Sharapova's mother, unable to procure a visa, stayed alone in Russia for nearly three years. It was a lean and hungry time, a period Yuri would later describe as "sheer survival."
"Now Maria is worth $30 million," says Robert Lansdorp, coach to Pete Sampras, Tracy Austin and, for the past seven years, Sharapova. "She can do whatever the hell she wants."
What she wants, in addition to being No. 1, is to expand her brand. She already has her own fragrance, called Maria Sharapova. She has her own video game, I-play Maria Sharapova Tennis. She has a line of handbags, designed by the same Japanese company that produced Victoria "Posh Spice" Beckham's wares, and she will, in time, have her own clothing line. (For now she boosts sales for Nike-her 2004 Wimbledon ensemble was the company's best-selling tennis outfit of all time.) Should those ventures not bear fruit, there is always the catwalk.
"When she was huffing and puffing on the court, I used to tease her and say, You should just model,'" says Lansdorp. "Now she talks about becoming one."
Singles tennis is an individual sport. There are no courtside coaches, no substitutions, no emotional breathers. Instead, there is face-to-face competition that breeds a sort of instant loathing. As in boxing, you alone are responsible for glory or shame. So it is no surprise that egos run amok in tennis, because without an unnatural belief in your ability, you may as well not even show up.
"Sharapova never quits," says two-time U.S. Open singles champion Austin. "She claws and dives and gives every ounce she has. It doesn't enter her mind that she could lose." Bollettieri concurs: "A lot of her game is mental. It is not so much she wants to win as she hates to lose."
In time, for most players, that bravado settles in, starts to feel natural. You win and people chant your name, like they know you. "It happens
to all of them," says Lansdorp. "They grow so isolated. Little by little they become more self-centered, more egotistical, thinking they are the greatest and they did it all by themselves."
Lansdorp then shares a story about Russia's Anastasia Myskina and a young Sharapova, and how, when Myskina was rising in the rankings and Sharapova was a 13-year-old kid, they treated each other like sisters. Myskina stood up for Sharapova, mentoring her. Now, for reasons that elude Lansdorp, the two barely speak.
Says King, "Tennis is a business now. When I played, we used to sit around the locker room and talk. We laughed at ourselves. These girls don't do that. There is no sharing. I can't even call Maria Sharapova directly." Adds Lansdorp, "Always, always the bitchiness comes out. I don't know if you can solve that problem."
Take the Williams sisters. Unparalleled raw talent, compelling personal story, but they grew too large, say industry wags. They became unsympathetic, less marketable. And their tennis careers took a nap. "They gave up," says Bollettieri with genuine sadness. Cushioned by their cash and their new lives as glitterati, the girls went soft. This causes much hand-wringing among tennis pundits. If you can still be the best, goes the gripe, why wouldn't you?
Well, maybe because hitting balls eight hours a day in practice is a lot less fun than dancing on a banquette with a movie producer. Maybe because once you have millions in the bank, proving yourself feels redundant. Maybe because Anna Kournikova demonstrated that leaving tennis to frolic on the beach in a bikini attracts more attention than winning 16 doubles titles. Screw training.
She still has her adidas sponsorship. Only now she also has a hunky boyfriend named Enrique.
"Unless a chick is so fricking ugly she can't get a deal," says Lansdorp, "those days of running down balls for years are done. Because once you have tons of money, tennis starts to feel tough."
"Maybe it is sad, maybe it isn't," says WTA chairman Scott, when confronted with the paradox of players who become celebrities and outgrow tennis. "But the truth is, in this day and age it is not enough to be a great champion."
"I feel old."
-Maria Sharapova on turning 18
THE CANON shoot is winding down, and Entertainment Tonight has appeared on the set, hoping to film a behind-the-scenes look at Sharapova. After a quick break for a ham sandwich, Sharapova slouches into her chair, a Canon camera hung conspicuously around her neck. As the interviewer rustles her notes, Sharapova glances at her mother and rolls her eyes. Seconds later, filming begins.
"I know you've answered these questions a million times, but you know, for the purposes of the show, can you tell me when you started playing tennis." "I started at age 4." "Um. Okay. Can you elaborate a little?" "You should have said to do that."
"Right, well, can you now?"
After a few minutes, Sharapova livens up. She talks about Canon and how much she enjoys snapping photographs. How she looks forward to meeting famous people, specifically Sarah Jessica Parker and "all the hot males. I mean, why not?" She says that one day, she hopes to be a model and an actress, "a fun side of the sport," and acknowledges that she herself has "become a bit of a celebrity."
"I'm making a statement here," she explains. The interview ends. Sharapova hops up from the chair and heads back on set, where her hair is sprayed and her lips are painted with a glittery pink gloss.
The next morning, Canon gives her diamond earrings, a token of appreciation for her hard work. She opens them in her trailer and admires them briefly before turning her attention to the more pressing matter of what to wear to her 18th birthday party, happening a few days later in New York City and sponsored by Motorola.
"I think she liked them," a handler tells the Canon rep after delivering the gift. "Oh, thank goodness," the rep sighs. "We were worried."
Somewhere, in another world, a little girl is pounding balls into a wall, ferocious and determined, the racket too big and rough against her palm. She is dreaming of Grand Slams, of Wimbledon, of winning, of being No. 1 and becoming the best there ever was. And if she is good, and she is noticed, it won't take long before someone takes her hand and tells her to stop thinking so small.