Archive | September, 2005

Sharapova: A Model Athlete

3 Sep


Sharapova: a model athlete

ROHIT BRIJNATH

A FLEETING visit last week to one planet in the online universe of Maria Sharapova (mariaworld.net), where her career is breathlessly recorded, is revealing in the symmetry of its headlines. First was stated news of the US Open draw, then the launch of her US Open dress, followed by a report that she is now world No.1, accompanied by a statement she is unveiling her new TAG Heuer watch.

The stories do not seem purposely arranged in this order (no publicist is that clever), but stand anyway as interesting reminder of who she is. A tennis player but a stylish one; a player to be watched for how she plays but also for the watch she plays with. This is the model athlete (no kidding, for in 2003 she signed with IMG Models).

The world was initially suspicious of Sharapova because it is instinctively cynical of beautiful athletes. Talent apparently should sell, but apparently never sex, irrespective of whether female athletes get a fair shake in the sporting business. Anna Kournikova was mocked for being more gifted at pouting than persevering, as if someone of her limited skills should be disallowed from making a fortune from her looks. If she was occasionally tawdry, then so were some critics.

Beautiful athletes, even with amputated competitive spirits, attract attention to their sports. Considering women’s sports are constantly, and unfortunately, scrapping for sponsorships, spectators and television time, every little bit helps. Numerous sports teams have posed for elegant yet provocative calendars simply to find funds for their struggling sports.

Sharapova, of course, is considered acceptable because she has straddled the divide adroitly; her gold-trimmed shoes are fine for she runs down winners in them; having her own perfume is tolerable for she is not scared of smelling of sweat on court; her appearance in GQ and Vogue and Vanity Fair is no issue because she is perfectly at home within the covers of Sports Illustrated.

Sharapova is seen as giving beauty in tennis a legitimacy; Kournikova won $3.5 million in career prize money, Sharapova already has topped $4 million. Kournikova never won a tournament, Sharapova has 10 including the 2004 Wimbledon title. Of course, Maria Sharapova is slightly behind on Google hits (one of the modern barometers of fame), with 743,000 hits to Anna Kournikova’s 749,000, but not for long you think.

Sharapova will play down her loveliness in press rooms, but play it up outside. Sponsors want to endorse fine players, but also attractive ones, and Tag Heuer, Canon, Motorola, Prince, Nike, Colgate-Palmolive have discovered the ultimate package in her. Her appeal is her talent, but also her blonde beauty, and at a recent tournament in Canada, a poster of her was taken down after it was considered too tasteless.

But beauty, and sponsors, and comparisons with Kournikova miss the point about Sharapova. Is she a great talent we are unsure, that verdict will arrive with time, but she owns an incandescent rage on court that is magnetic. She does not sharpen her nails before matches to look appealing, but to ensure they draw blood.

There are women players more gifted at present than Sharapova, who is owner of a forehand that will win no architecture awards and moves as awkwardly on court as the dignified Davenport might on a catwalk. But if not fast she is furious, carrying on court a bully’s sneer and a longshoreman’s penchant for fisticuffs.

Her father, Yuri, who possesses by some accounts a fascination with dropping out of helicopters to extreme ski, is himself a loud, fist-pumping, etiquette-busting presence courtside, and his daughter appears to mirror some of that desperation. There is a drive here to be famous, in tennis record books and beyond it.

For Maria, beauty is irrelevant on court, bruises are better. Arriving from Siberia much has been made of her iciness, but the idea fits. She will glare confrontationally, and then she will hiss, she will pump her skinny arms and then grunt like a piano-lifter at every point. Generally she is not averse to producing an ugly mayhem.

For her every match seems exquisitely personal, carrying the possibility of affront, and thus opponents must not so much beaten as devoured. As she once revealed, and not all of it was teenage bravado: “I know that every single tournament I go to, no matter who I play, no matter how friends I am with that person, I know I just want to rip them apart every time I step on court.”

So when Sesil Karatantcheva, only 16 now, intemperately suggested last year before her first confrontation with Sharapova that she would “kick her ass off”, it was akin to telling Roy Keane his tackles were girlish. Sharapova won that encounter in three sets; this year at Wimbledon she reduced Karatantcheva to tears with a 6-0, 6-1 hiding. It was scoreline with a point attached.

Sharapova’s slaughter of Serena Williams at Wimbledon last year, in only her seventh Grand Slam, was a powerful advertisement of precocity, a masterful statement in big-match temperament. Not a stroke she played had a scent of awe attached to it, either of her opponent or the occasion. It was not a confirmation of greatness, but a sign.

The Russian’s ambition can be seen, but also heard, she can be giggly in the interview room yet follow it with a cold savagery. When asked at the Australian Open this year after defeat by Serena, despite owning match points, if the American had showed her anything on court, she replied archly “What did she show me? Nothing.” Of course, the intimidation once brought by the Williams sisters, as is somewhat the case with Tiger Woods, has eroded, but Sharapova is unhesitant to articulate it.

The No.1 ranking, which bounces rapidly between the women’s players and is a product of a flawed computer, is a useful tag but hardly affirmation that Sharapova is the world’s best player. It is hard to wear that label in a year without a Grand Slam title or even a Grand Slam final appearance, but it is a year not over with yet.

But at 18, no one will contest the point at length because it seems somewhat inevitable it is a number she is eventually fated to wear comfortably. Her game promises to find itself, her mind it seems is already there. Asked once if any of her coaches had told her to work on the mental side of her game, her reply was perfunctory. “Never”, she said sternly.

So next time you see Sharapova on a billboard, or a mural down the side of a building, all coquettish and graceful, stylish and sweetly smiling like some angelic hawker, don’t fall for it, don’t be fooled, and just remember this. On court, she’s all business, too.


Hindu On Net

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