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Still in her Nike practice gear with her ponytail swinging and her forehead faintly perspiring, Maria Sharapova would have been tough to miss recently in a quiet Toronto hotel, even if she hadn’t introduced herself. Minutes after politely excusing herself for a quick change, the striking 24-year-old reappeared in a designer-without-trying-too-hard look.
It all may appear to come easily to Sharapova, but her cool demeanor on court and in public masks an industrious work ethic and competitive fire that are evidenced by her status as the world’s highest paid female athlete. Whether slamming serves on the court, poring over sales reports for her Nike-designed line or tidying up before the cleaning woman’s arrival, the tennis champ is not one to leave anything to chance. She certainly has had plenty of practice, beyond the four hours she trains each day with racquet in hand and another hour in the gym. Sharapova was only 11 when Nike first signed an endorsement deal with her. Last year the activewear giant upped its commitment considerably with a reported $70 million deal with Sharapova that extends through 2018.
Martina Navratilova was the first to recognize her potential, plucking the then-7-year-old from a Moscow tennis clinic and suggesting she attend Nick Bollettieri’s tennis academy in Florida. When potential investors in the academy started sitting in on her practices on a regular basis, that registered with the savvy youngster that she might be becoming a contender. But performance, not praise, remains her mission.
“I don’t think words always give your confirmation. I think you have to prove it. I think that’s why I love my sport so much. My life is controlled by wins and losses. It’s all in my hands. It’s not in the hands of someone who can control my life or control my career, or make me famous, whether it’s an incredible magazine or a high-profile boyfriend,” she said. “I have always been really passionate about my own life and the things that I have achieved I have achieved with my own hands, and with the help of many people and my parents. But at the end of the day, all my successes come from my tennis.”
Sharapova has had a resurgence of late after struggling for the last few years due to a recurring shoulder injury. After getting knocked out of the Rogers Cup in Toronto in the third round, she went on to win the Cincinnati Open two weeks ago. With last year’s champion Kim Clijsters pulling out of the U.S. Open because of injury, Sharapova is now one of the favorites of the tournament and, as the third seed, will square off against Heather Watson in a first-round match slated for today barring any Hurricane Irene-related delays.
Along with the tennis crowd, Sharapova will have plenty of support from her sponsors’ staffers — Nike, Cole Haan, Tiffany & Co., Tag Heuer, Head, Canon, Evian, Gatorade, Sony Ericsson and Clear anti-dandruff shampoo. Her ranking may have fluctuated in recent years, but her business prowess is nothing but consistent. Next up is Sugarpova, a candy line due out later this year or in early 2012.
Interestingly, topping Forbes’ 2011 list as the world’s highest paid female athlete for the seventh straight year is one accolade that doesn’t seem to faze her. “Forbes is a very interesting and strange list. Any information that people tend to find about money is just so bizarre to me. How does anyone have contact to how much money people are making? There are yearly lists of highest paid this and highest paid that. You sometimes think they have a direct contact to your financial manager,” she said. “Obviously you [can] know how much somebody gets for a movie role or for a contract, but as for anyone’s overall earnings I think that’s a person’s private business. Anyone can just assume, so I don’t think those lists are as accurate as people think they are.”
So does she think she isn’t top-ranked? “Oh no, I don’t know. People make a much bigger deal about money than they should.”
She seems to appreciate the value of things, perhaps because she saw how her father worked construction in the Florida sun to bankroll her training. Relocating to the U.S. also meant that the Siberian-born blonde did not see her mother for two years, since her father’s work visa only allowed for one family member to accompany him. The trio has long been reunited in the States, often spending nights together at each other’s California houses, since “there is no real formal place where somebody lives,” Sharapova said.
And this country’s many conveniences have yet to fade. “For someone from Russia, the idea of getting in your car in your garage, going to the supermarket, taking a trolley, finding everything in one place, taking the cart back to your car, driving home and taking the elevator from your garage right into your kitchen — those things are too much,” she said.
Her ride — a black Jaguar XKR — and her massive engagement ring from her NBA-playing fiancé Sasha Vujacic are some of the few signs of indulgence. Given her take-charge business acumen, it’s not surprising that she “would rather drive than be a passenger.”
That might explain why she makes a point of reviewing “all the financial stuff” — bills, sales reports and what have you — even though her mother helps with that side of things. “I like to be aware and to be a part of that, and not just let other people take care of your things,” she said.
Throughout a far-reaching interview, Sharapova is conversational and likeable and talks about a lot more than just sports. Apparently having more than 5 million Facebook friends hasn’t alienated her from liking nothing more than spending a night in with some friends she grew up with, or met along the way. “I don’t need to go to a fancy restaurant or to wear a high pair of shoes to make myself feel good. I am happy sitting on the floor watching TV and eating pizza,” she said.
Relaxed as that might sound, she can still dress with the best of them. After ditching her workout clothes, she turned up for this month’s interview in Isabel Marant pants, a Topshop top, a three-year-old Balenciaga jacket and Cole Haan ballet flats — the line’s bestseller that she helped design. Asked for a few favorite designers, she singled out Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Rick Owens, Alber Elbaz and Phoebe Philo. Burton dressed the tennis star for the British Council’s pre-Wimbledon party.
“She is incredible, so not what you would expect of fashion. It seems as though she has so much in her hands and such a big lead to take over. She does that in her own way and I think that is so powerful when you have such big shoes to fill,” Sharapova said. “I think Stella McCartney did such a great job with that. Of course she had the McCartney last name but she envisioned her collection and her clothes to speak for themselves. And over the years I think we can say that they finally have. Stella McCartney is not just Paul McCartney’s daughter. She’s a designer.”
Another British fashion source, Becks Welch, styles Sharapova, whose on-the-road lifestyle does not allow much time for wardrobe planning. Welch said, “Maria has a really strong idea of what works for her and she knows who she is. As she has gotten older, she has become more confident in asserting her style and making strong statements, and not just jumping on trends.”
She seems to take a similarly sensible approach to designing for Nike and Cole Haan. Sharapova is among the elite athletes in Nike’s Annie Liebovitz-shot “Make Yourself” ad campaign. Shoppers can now see her on-court performance and training pieces in 30 countries. Some of Nike’s junior tennis players also suit up in her creations though never exact replicas of what she is competing in. For her daytime matches at the Open, Sharapova will wear a superlightweight Nina Ricci-inspired lavender dress with neon pink straps.
When she plays at night at Flushing Meadows, she will wear a more dramatic black dress with green accents that will be all about the back of the dress.
“In terms of fashion, something is so much more valuable when it lasts. And in terms of the product, something is so much more special when you know it’s not going to fall apart. It’s like that little blanket you [knew] you were always going to have when you were young even if it is a little dirty or a lot dirty,” she said. (In her case, it was the stuffed bunny her mother gave her one Christmas at the age of 4 or 5 and, yes, she still has it.)
Her Tiffany sponsorship deal allows her to focus on more adult mementos. The jewelry company provides, but does not mass produce, the earrings she wears for major tournaments. Meeting architect Frank Gehry, who designs a signature collection for the brand, left an indelible impression two years ago. “It was really incredible to go to his studio. Goodness, he had so many projects he was working on. I was thinking, ‘If you could work on so many things when you’re that age, you can work on many things when you’re 22,’” she said.
Had she not gone the tennis route, Sharapova could have seen herself becoming an architect. She is more inclined to while away a Paris afternoon walking through the parks admiring the intricate railings of chi-chi apartments than shop. “Instead of whole buildings, I find I admire the details in architecture,” said Sharapova, who is more drawn to clean lines than ornate ones. “I think a lot more people are into simplicity and contemporary, a minimalist approach. Then Lady Gaga came along and she makes Rihanna look like a minimalist.”
Even with little free time in Toronto, Sharapova insisted her mother take the 30-minute walk to see Gehry’s redesign of the Art Gallery of Ontario. Earlier this summer, the design-minded tennis pro sent her mother on a recon mission to check out the Alexander McQueen show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “My grandmother was visiting from Russia and she was like, ‘Uh, that was a little scary,’” Sharapova said with a laugh. “But they loved it. My mom said, ‘The line was long but it was great.’”
She admires tastemakers who take chances, even those who are not her speed. “Gwen [Stefani] has this rocker edgy style, which she knows she is able to pull off all the time —whether it’s nine in the morning and she’s at the gym wearing a pair of sunglasses and red lipstick on the treadmill next to me [as has happened] or at a red-carpet event. She can take her kids to school in six-inch platforms,” Sharapova said.
“Or someone like Sienna Miller, who’s look is just very easy, loose and chic but in a very contemporary way.”
At 6-foot 2-inches, Sharapova is not to be overlooked, but she is not about to say whether her looks are a blessing or a curse. “What can you do about the way you come out looking? There is nothing you can really do about it. Just as every woman would say you appreciate some things about the way you look but there are also so many flaws,” she said “Of course as a woman you want to feel beautiful on the outside, but I think there is so much more to a person when they have a great character, a great heart and a great love inside. That always transforms how you look on the outside.
“I really pride myself on the fact that I don’t need to go to a red-carpet event for people to see me and recognize me or put me in a film or one of their magazines. I never had a publicist in my career until I started working with Meredith a few months ago,” she said. “It’s not like photographers follow me around 24-7. I don’t have to wake up in the morning and put on mascara or red lipstick to go get a cup of coffee. And I never, ever want to or have to do that.”
Having 5 million-plus Facebook friends even surprises her. “When social networking became big I was so hesitant about it. I could never understand why you would share so many personal things on the Internet for so many people to see. I learned you have so many fans all around the world who really want to be connected in more ways. It’s incredible. I never thought I would see such a number. Five million? It’s eye opening, it really is. Whether there is some person who is just clicking a button going ‘I want to be her friend, I want to be her friend.’ It makes me wonder if there really are different people.”
While utilizing Facebook to connect with fans has become second nature for her, joining the Twitter brigade is not on the immediate horizon. “I’m not a Twitter type of person. It’s very direct and so immediate. With Facebook, I can post every few days. Twitter is more about what you’re having for dinner then what’s on your mind and different things that are going on,” she said.
Given her transient lifestyle and her fiancé’s decision to play basketball professionally in Turkey while the NBA sorts out a lockout, Sharapova has plenty going on. Her wedding, however, is not right around the bend. But having a family is definitely on her mind. “I want to have a family. My mom had me when she was very young. I am best friends with her, so I would like to have that connection with my kids as well. I always say, ‘I missed that train,’ because she had me when she was 20 or 21,” Sharapova said. “I want to have a few kids — and I don’t want to wait too long.”
With a little more than six years left on the reported $70 million deal with Nike, Sharapova does not expect to retire any time soon. “I think it will happen when I wake up one day and feel as though I either can’t get better or that my body doesn’t allow me to. Or that I just don’t want to. When that will come, I don’t know. I hope not soon because I love the sport and I still want to be playing and being part of it,” she said.