This article appears in the June 28 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
There is a video on YouTube of 11-year-old Maria Shishkina staying balanced as she stands on a big, silver exercise ball. If you think it's easy, give it a shot. Then, once you can stand, try having a catch. Odds are, you'll fall -- and fall and fall and fall as you keep trying, only to finally give up in frustration. Shishkina, though, is calm, chatting and giggling as she tosses a ball back and forth with a coach, her bulging quads keeping her steady atop the unstable ball. Aside from her thick, blond ponytail, those quads are Shishkina's most defining feature -- and two reasons why this wisp of a child is tennis' next big thing.
On a brisk winter day in Bradenton, Fla., Shishkina's musculature is on full display as she practices on one of the many courts at the IMG Bollettieri Tennis Academy. Her mother, Marina, watches, perched on four-inch stilettos. "Looking back, it's so funny," Marina says. "Four years ago, we came here right from the airport in a taxi. I didn't speak any English, but they had someone who could translate. They asked me why I had come. I told them, 'I need a scholarship. I've brought you a star.' I can say now, I was right."
We know, we know: Eleven is too young to give anyone the "star" tag. But those who know Shishkina well already call her the next Sharapova. Like that other Maria, this one left her home country (Kazakhstan) at a young age with just one parent in tow (dad Igor, an ex-boxer, has had problems getting a visa to the U.S.) to pursue tennis dreams in America. Like Sharapova, Shishkina is guided by the legendary Nick Bollettieri. And like the three-time major winner, this one-time Eddie Herr International Junior Tennis Championships winner (U12) has a big-name clothing sponsor: this time, Under Armour.
The top dogs at Under Armour first fell in love with Shishkina last fall, when, on a tour of the Bollettieri facilities, they heard -- yes, heard -- her volleying. "It sounded like a pro," says Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank. "She was this little girl with a twinkle in her eye, and she was just so physically mature." Shishkina has biceps and triceps to go with those quads, and her size 9 and a half shoes indicate she'll be tall. Though she's too young to lift weights, she spends five hours a day on the court and in the gym, working with resistance bands, doing yoga and soccer drills, roller-skating and playing basketball. "Her training platform is a good example of what we're trying to promote for all of our athletes," says Steve Battista, Under Armour's marketing chief.
In Shishkina, Under Armour sees an opportunity to make a big splash in tennis (the company accounted for just 4.4 percent of the tennis apparel market in 2009). Can Shishkina deliver a return on the investment, a five-year deal worth $350,000 plus bonuses? Too early to tell. Even the most successful female tennis prodigies don't start winning Slams until they reach their teens (Martina Hingis won three in 1997 at 16; Sharapova won Wimbledon in 2004 at 17), which means it could be years before we know for sure if Shishkina is the real deal. "Her whole viewpoint may change," says Bollettieri. "She may get
injured. She may meet a boy."
At the moment, though, her priorities seem laser-focused on the court. "She has the whole game," says Bollettieri. "Slices, drop shots, swinging volleys, overheads, backhands, big offensive forehands and the serve." Shishkina -- who won the Eddie Herr in December, reached the quarterfinals at the Orange Bowl later that month and won a handful of smaller tourneys this spring -- is home-schooled to accommodate her training schedule. She has a work ethic that would put most pros to shame, and a bit of a swagger. She walks, chin up and chest out, like she's daring the world to take a swing. "Someday, I want people to say I changed the game of tennis or I was a legend or I was No. 1 for a long time or made records," she says. "It means a lot when people say I could be a star. It motivates me."
Of course, Shishkina also freely admits to liking puppies, playing Wii and having her mother courtside during matches. So she is still very much a little girl.
Albeit one with very big quads.
Lindsay Berra is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine