It's a good article...with plenty of mistakes...I can't seem to access wtaworld for some reason.
The Hot Shot
Tennis starlet Maria Sharapova's overnight fame was years in the making. how to make it last?
In an isolated patch of rural Spain, the midday sun broils the clay court. The teenage boys training at the Equelitetennis academy sweat through a series of drills and struggle to focus on tennis rather than stare at the superstar practicing on the next court: Maria Sharapova, a dazzling 6-foot-tall blonde in a sleeveless T shirt and snug shorts who grunts each time her racquet smacks the ball to deliver a blinding, blurry serve.
Sharapova, all of 18 years old and a lanky unknown a year ago, would rather ignore the celebrity thing, too, but these days she is the "It" girl of women's tennis--and the world's best-compensated female athlete, earning close to $20 million a year on court and off. Her sudden fame since winning Wimbledon last July at age 17, wielding speed and power to topple perennial number one Lindsay Davenport and the often invincible Serena Williams, have made her a hot property to Nike, Canon, Colgate-Palmolive, Motorola and a bevy of other brands. A fragrance named after her will be out in the fall.
This is the payoff for 12 years of six-hour practice days, constant travel and the exclusion of anything close to a normal childhood. Yet the Russian-born tennis star and her crew--her father and her managers at IMG (see p. 122)--view it as a dangerous distraction from what counts. After signing her up for nine endorsement deals since Wimbledon, they are closed for business; they turn down millions of dollars in new deals and limit her work for sponsors to just three weeks a year. Sharapova herself--who is a few credits shy of a home-schooling high school degree, won't attend college anytime soon and doesn't have time for friends or beaux--eschews appearances at lavish parties, awards shows and other diversions.
Her reluctance is risky, for a tennis star's time at the top can be fleeting. A bad knee injury in her next tournament could end her career in an instant. Fickle marketers might lose interest when the next hot newcomer wins a big upset. Why not rake in every dollar while you can?Anna Kournikova, another leggy blonde Russian tennis star once with IMG, made a splash at age 16, then foundered, never winning a major tournament. Yet she parlayed her celebrity and sex appeal into millions of dollars in product endorsements. She stopped playing competitive tennis at 21, two years ago, but still earns upward of $4 million a year from marketers.
In Sharapova's camp, though, Kournikova is a cautionary tale: a talented, marketable athlete who ultimately didn't fulfill her potential, never ranking higher than tenth in the world. "That's why I play tennis--because I want to be number one, not because I want to be number ten," Sharapova says in an interview, calm, self-possessed and unaccompanied by any handlers. "If you don't want to be number one in the world, then there is no reason for you to even start." She is well aware, though, that looks are as important as winning. "Beauty sells," she says. " I have to realize that's also part of why people want me. I understand it. It's fine. I'm not going to make myself ugly."
Maria Sharapova was born in 1987 in Siberia and moved to the Black Sea resort town of Sochi a year later. She was the only child in a family living well enough to play tennis and go skiing. Her dad, Yuri, worked in construction and had a racquet in her hand by the time she was a toddler. At age 6 she attended a tennis clinic in Moscow and met Martina Navratilova, who advised that she start training professionally. Soon afterwards Yuri and Maria left her mother, Yelena, behind in Russia and came to the U.S., traveling to its tennis mecca--Florida. Maria says she can't recall even discussing the move, only packing for it the night before. The trip was funded by loans from both sets of her grandparents.
"My parents weren't stupid," she says. "The conditions in Russia weren't the best for tennis." Her mother, unable to secure a visa, wouldn't rejoin her until two years later; if this separation hurt, Maria doesn't show it. Soon after landing in Florida, father and daughter showed up at the famed Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla., which has molded such stars as Andre Agassi, Monica Seles and Pete Sampras. But the trainers there deemed her too young and advised Yuri to return when she was a little older.
Then came two difficult years of knocking around. Maria can't recall details but says she and her dad made the Florida tennis scene, where she got sporadic instruction and he found ways to pay the bills. "You can never get a real straight answer from either of them," says Max Eisenbud, Maria's main handler at IMG, who speaks with her daily. "Yuri calls it survival. It was just two very tough years. They don't forget what it was like."
When the Sharapovas returned to Bollettieri in 1995, Maria was 9 and raw, gawky and spaghetti thin, but she was more advanced than any other child her age. "She had an air of almost naive arrogance and privilege," Bollettieri recalls. He had sold his shop in 1987 to IMG, which uses it as a profit center and feeder system for future clients. The academy charges $46,000 for nine months of training, tutoring and room and board. IMG offered Maria a full-ride scholarship, placing her alongside girls who were ten years older. "I never had the experience of actually being around other kids every day," Sharapova says. "I was never in, like, a normal school, never in kindergarten." But she adds:"It's hard to miss it when you've never really had it."
Her training was handled first by Bollettieri's team and later by groundstroke specialist Robert Lansdorp, who had worked with Sampras. But Bollettieri says, "Make no mistake about it:There is only one coach, and that is Yuri Sharapova." (The dad declines all interviews, to keep the spotlight on his daughter.)