How She Got to No. 1

6 minute read
Sean Gregory

Maria Sharapova fibs. “I’m just a normal girl,” she giggles. Sharapova, 18, the blond, leggy, Russia-born, Florida-raised tennis pinup is the No. 1–ranked player in the world heading into next week’s U.S. Open. Sure, like a normal girl, Sharapova is a bit of a mall rat. But a normal girl doesn’t morph into the highest-paid female athlete on the planet in one year. She doesn’t have a corporate sponsor like Motorola throw her 18th-birthday party at a swank Manhattan nightclub, pack it with 500 people and hire Maroon 5 to rock out. And a normal girl certainly doesn’t walk the tightrope between sports and sex, sparking a mini-furor at a Toronto tourney because her two stadium banners were a tad too revealing.

Here’s some truth: since her surprise win at Wimbledon 14 months ago, Sharapova has aced the pundits who thought she would be a one-stroke wonder, mixing a rare brand of off-court glam and on-court grit to earn the world’s top spot. Remember, we have heard a story like this before. A beautiful Russian prodigy, reared at a Florida tennis factory, splashes onto the scene–and claims more magazine covers than she does trophies. But while Anna Kournikova treated tennis as if it were a pushy paparazzo, the game is Sharapova’s Prince Charming.

Sharapova leads one of the deepest U.S. Open fields in the history of women’s tennis. The slam sisters, Serena and Venus Williams, will be formidable, as will new No. 2 Lindsay Davenport. Behind them lurks a horde of Sharapova’s fellow Russians, including defending U.S. Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova and Elena Dementieva; Belgians Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne; and France’s Amélie Mauresmo. Any one of them could win the Open. The men’s game, on the other hand, has been dominated by the silent Swiss Roger Federer. The only mystery concerns who will be Federer’s stompee in the final.

To get to the top spot, Sharapova steadily piled up points this summer while Davenport nursed injuries. Sharapova is consistent, having won six tournaments since her triumph at Wimbledon, and she reached the quarters and two semifinals in this year’s three Grand Slam events. But her quick rise–from No. 324 to No. 1 in three years–has surprised everyone, even the typically self-assured Sharapova. “It’s actually shocking,” she tells TIME. “Before I was trying to lay off the whole thing, saying, ‘I’m not worried about it, it’s not important.’ But you know, once you get there, it’s, like, wow!”

Just as important, she learned to say no. After winning Wimbledon, she rejected offers to present at award shows and pose for laddie magazines. She turned down dozens of endorsement contracts. She did ink nine deals with the likes of Motorola, Nike, Colgate-Palmolive and Canon that with her court winnings amount to more than $20 million in annual income. But her agent, Max Eisenbud, and a 25-person “Team Sharapova” at sports-rep firm IMG gave the corporate sponsors just three weeks this year with her.

The rest is all tennis. Sharapova has a wicked serve (up to 115 m.p.h.), unusual in the women’s game, to go along with a lethal two-handed backhand. She has even sprouted two more inches–she’s now 6 ft. 2 in.–which lets her cover more ground with those endless legs. “I wouldn’t say I’m in love with them,” Sharapova says of the extra inches, adding her signature giggle burst. “Because if I wear heels, I’m like 6 ft. 4 in. It’s a little too tall.” Even when she was a kid, tennis gurus noticed another extra: her unsurpassed competitive intensity. “Her desire set her apart from the pack,” says former top pro Pam Shriver. Now, “she has an aura that floats around, and that’s intimidating.”

Sharapova’s backstory reads like a tall tale. When she was 2 years old, her parents fled their Siberian town, Nyagan, to escape the nuclear residue of Chernobyl. They settled in Sochi, on the Black Sea. At 6, Sharapova was playing at a Moscow tennis clinic when Martina Navratilova spotted her. The legend told her father Yuri that Sharapova should train at Nick Bollettieri’s famed tennis academy in Bradenton, Fla., which ripened stars like Monica Seles and Andre Agassi. With $700 in his pocket, Yuri took Maria to Bollettieri’s doorstep. “In the beginning it was tough to tell anything about how good she was,” says Bollettieri. “She was so skinny that if she turned sideways there was nothing there.”

The older girls in the dorms picked on the slight, peculiar 9-year-old, who struggled with English. “I had only myself as company,” says Sharapova. “It just made me tougher.” That, and insisting on playing against the boys. On the court, she had Yuri, her coach to this day. Her father still barks during matches–“he crosses the line a little sometimes,” admits Robert Lansdorp, her stroke coach. And Maria is not afraid to bark back, leading to speculation of a strained relationship. But Sharapova insists we won’t see the father-daughter burnout that has plagued so many young women in tennis. “If we get into a fight, it’s over in, like, 10 minutes,” says Sharapova. “We laugh.”

Sharapova’s success doesn’t have everyone smiling. Sponsors pay a steeper premium for beauty in women’s sports–critics call that sexist. Navratilova isn’t one of them: “Maria is not taking money out of anyone’s pocket. It’s not her fault. To me, if you got it, flaunt it.”

The issue has also fueled tension between Sharapova and the other Russian tennis phenoms (eight Russians are in the top 20), a few of whom have also won Grand Slams but not enjoyed a Sharapova-like windfall. Some even question her Red blood, given her Florida upbringing. “Her father speaks half-English, half-Russian to her,” says Nadia Petrova, ranked ninth in the world. “I was kind of shocked by that because if you’re born in Russia, why is he speaking English to her?”

Fellow pros also question how long Sharapova can stay No. 1. “There are a lot of players with a better game,” says Serena Williams, who beat Sharapova at the Australian Open in January but lost to her in the ’04 Wimbledon and Tour Championships finals. Says Sharapova: “There’s always going to be people talking. Words are words, then you actually got to go out and do it.”

Sharapova’s career plan is to make her mark and move on, knowing how the game tends to grind up its teen sensations. Any chance of shooting for titles past age 30, creating a legacy like Navratilova and Chris Evert? “No,” says Sharapova. “I’ll tell you that, no.” That would still leave the next decade, one that could prove difficult for her opponents. She’s sharpening her forehand with Lansdorp. And that killer instinct? “She wants to beat you love and love [6-0, 6-0],” says Bollettieri. “There is no mercy on the court and no mercy for anyone when she’s playing.” In view of Sharapova’s wins so far, that’s no fib. –With reporting by Chris Daniels/Toronto and Kristina Dell/New York

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