On the one hand, Maria Sharapova was and remains the face of the seemingly endless Russian Revolution. As the Wall Street Journal once said, she’s the “most public face of the new Russian woman – talented, self-assured, ambitious and independent. Until recently, there were almost no such women in Russia.”
On the other hand, she’s the ultimate “poor little rich girl,” the embodiment of America’s rags-to-riches ethos. After all, her family escaped the ashes of Chernobyl and sought refuge in Siberia, before dad and daughter migrated to Florida with $700 in their pockets. Legend has it that father Yuri would bicycle little Maria to the Bollettieri factory to hewn her emerging skills.
And then the rest was history: the next Anna Kournikova, giddy teen Wimbledon champ, breakfast at Tiffany’s bliss, U.S. Open queen, No. 1 ranking. Life’s a breeze. Runways ‘n gossip, Sharapova became a Madison Ave. workhorse (with a cutesy puppy) and a Hollywood fave. On court with diamond earrings, her outfits became fodder for fashion chatter. Donald Trump spoke of her alluring shoulders and claimed Maria’s supermodel looks intimidated Serena in their ’04 Wimbledon final.
So Maria would do sexy ads and show up at events with eight (“count ’em”) armed guards. Her 21st birthday party was a celeb-friendly Manhattan happening with a “Sex and the City” sensibility. All the while, her agent assured us that Maria was bound to become a brand in her own right – like BMW, IBM or Rolex. Twenty-three million dollars a year in endorsements ain’t too shabby. For, as Frank Deford noted, when it comes to sports fans (well, male sports fans) sex trumps everything, even jingoism. Maria was adored. She had her own stamp in Japan, was on magazine covers from Tribecca to Timbuktu and the Internet couldn’t stop buzzin’ about the bountiful kid with a serve and a well-produced smile. Such a wave of triumph.
Still, there were cautionary voices. It wasn’t just her over-grunting that drew comment. Martina Hingis warned that Sharapova would be derailed when her first great love came along. Mary Carillo contended that Sharapova would “screw it up, not personally, but she’ll screw it up the way Capriati did and Kournikova did. Phenoms tend to get their lives screwed up, whether they want to or not.” Swede Thomas Johansson had the temerity to claim that Maria wasn’t that good looking and that he didn’t fancy her. Conchita Martinez bristled, “What girls like Sharapova want to do is sell at any cost. But I would not act that way. If they told me that I must play in a bikini top to sell, I wouldn’t do it. I’d save my bikini wearing for the beach.”
Through it all Maria wasn’t one to get intimidated and the tough Russian was hardly a dumb blonde. When the media pegged her as just another Anna Kournikova, she told them to get over it, “it’s Maria time.” When it was suggested that she appear on “Desparate Housewives,” she scoffed, “I’m neither desperate nor a housewife.” Steely and savvy, she became a hit in America while retaining over-the-top billboard popularity in her native Russia, despite nasty feuds with fellow players like Anastasia Myskina. When critics claimed that en route to her ’06 U.S. Open crown she broke (well, at least bent) the rules by getting coaching or advice from the Friends Box, she flicked off the critique. When pal Novak Djokovic offered a devastating pantomime of her prissy serving routine (unlike other Djokovic victims whose initials are RF), she just laughed along with the joke.
And as for her cash factory – her high profile, high achieving, good looks – Sharapova was clear and quite unrepentant. “Beauty sells,” she noted. “I’m not making myself ugly.”
What Maria HAS done is also made herself available for many a good deed. A caring citizen, she quickly responded to the disastrous tsunami that hit Thailand and has long worked to help the still suffering victims of the Chernobyl meltdown.
Now, after being relegated to the sidelines for nine months with shoulder problems, Maria was delighted to be back in the Grand Slam action at Roland Garros. Now, once again, as Christopher Clarey adeptly noted, “you could see her as she galloped along the baseline and coquettishly tucked those stray strands of hair behind each ear before a serve.”
But the three-time Slam champ – who arrived in Paris ranked an uncharacteristic No. 102 – admits that while she was anxious to return, the layoff gave her a chance to stop and reflect on all the great things she has in her still very young life.
“I did have an opportunity to have a normal life,” said Sharapova, who advanced with tight wins over Belarusian Anastasiya Yakimova and Russian vet Nadia Petrova. “When you’re traveling 11 months out of the year, always on the go, you never have the time to actually settle down and appreciate the very little things.”
Sharapova got off to a slow-start against Yakimova, but before long was in full shrieking form and even showed brief flashes of her former No. 1 self. Her two-hour/11-minute mini-marathon with Petrova was a far more dicey affair. Under steel-gray skies, French partisans in a packed Suzanne Lenglen Stadium shouted out competing chants: “Nodd-dee-yaa” vs. ‘Maa-ree-ahh.” Never mind that Sharapova – a modest preventive bandage atop her repaired shoulder – still seemed a bit rusty, a smidge bigger and just a tad slow on her least favored surface. But her serve, despite a revised motion, still was a weapon and her groundies still found the corners, as if they had a will all of their. Down 4-2 in the third, Maria unleashed her much-celebrated fighting spirit as she survived three critical break-points and was quick to take advantage of Petrova errors to prevail 8-6 in the third.
Offering her usual round of regal (“I’m still the queen”) waves to the appreciative throng, she smiled in relief, knowing she once again had harnessed her ample desire to triumph in a tight battle of ‘big babe’ bashers for her sixth win in eight matches with Petrova.
Asked about her many months away from tennis, the unseeded 24-year-old confided, “In a strange way, it was a little calming. Even though it’s stressful, because you don’t know if you’re ever going to get the chance to be out here playing again…[But] you always have to be positive. Don’t get me wrong, there were many days when I was hesitant…there are so many different paths, so many voices and opinions. At the end of the day you have to try and choose the right one.”
“It’s the first time in my life where I couldn’t practice for such a long period,” she continued. “[For] months I didn’t touch a racket. Everything about it was just bizarre. It was [as if] some things were just taken away from your life…You sit back and miss the tour, you want to be out there,” she said. “It’s from the hour you’re in the locker room and putting your dress on to the 15 minutes before your match, where you’re warming up and you’re pumping yourself up [knowing] you’re going to get out there in front of 20,000 people. You miss that. I certainly missed it.”
Sharapova missed the Olympics and the U.S. Open in ’08 before opting for surgery in October to repair her rotator cuff. Appreciative and reflective, the big blonde with the little ponytail, explained that when she off the circuit she most missed the Olympics and seeing matches on TV motivated her.
“I’d be in my hotel in Phoenix and it would be 11:00 P.M. and I’d watch a match and I’d be so motivated from the girls playing I’d go to the gym. It would be dark outside and I’d ask them to go to the gym so I could work out.” Sharapova explained that what surprised her the most during her time off was that “a normal life exists…You realize that you have a home to come to. You have [a] great family and great friends…we just kept plugging along. We took the Soutwest flight every Monday and took it back to LA every Friday…It was a process [and] here I am.”