Six seasons since a little-known 17-year-old triggered a worldwide commercial revolution by capturing Wimbledon, Maria Sharapova's Madison Avenue magic continues to keep sponsors spellbound.
A one-person fiscal stimulus package, the Siberian-born, Florida-trained Russian routinely ranks as the highest-paid female athlete in the world with earnings of $22 million annually. But the economic juggernaut of Sharapova Inc. is in danger of diverging with her on-court success.
Following right shoulder surgery in October 2008 and a 10-month layoff, Sharapova in 2009 was a shadow of the player that blew past opponents for major hardware. Now, for the first time in two years, she starts the season at next week's Australian Open healthy, eager and rested.
The last time that happened? January 2008, when Sharapova bulldozed her way through a brutal draw that included four former or future No. 1s to a third Grand Slam title and first in Melbourne without dropping a set.
In a rare two-hour interview last month with USA TODAY inside her modern, three-story house in Manhattan Beach, Calif., Sharapova opened up about her fears and frustrations following surgery, her burning desire to compete and her outsize business ambitions.
"There was a lot of downtime for me to think about what I wanted," says Sharapova, who sat at her dining room table overlooking the Pacific Ocean while Dolce, the famed Pomeranian, licked, sniffed and nipped at an intruder. ("He has a personality disorder," laughed Sharapova.)
For Sharapova, a 20-time Tour winner who has spent 17 total weeks at No. 1, the months away from tennis — her longest absence since becoming a full-time pro in 2003 — allowed her to engage in normal twenty-something activities. She honed her cooking skills, hung out with friends and spent overdue time with her mother, who didn't come over when Sharapova first arrived in the USA at age 7 and has always been in the background. It also left her in unfamiliar territory: bored and powerless.
"As much as I wanted to get back out there as soon as I could, as weeks and months passed by I realized I couldn't make the process faster," she says of the rehabilitation following surgery. "In tennis, if I want to improve something, I know I can go out on the court, I can work on it, I can give it extra time. This was something I felt like I had no control over."
As she bounced between rehab stints in Phoenix and Los Angeles, those closest to Sharapova could see it gnawing away.
"It was sad," says her media-shy mother, Yelena, who looks like a slightly older version of actress Uma Thurman. "She was like a bird in a cage."
Sharapova says she distanced herself from thoughts her career might be over even as her recovery dragged past her doctor's most optimistic predictions. She avoided anything to do with tennis but never lost her motivation.
She also gained perspective with time outside the proverbial athlete's bubble. As she agonizingly watched her peers snatch big trophies, the world around her took notice but then quickly went back to daily life. It was a wakeup call.
"You win a tournament, say a Grand Slam, it's such an amazing feeling, everyone is excited, you get text messages, all these congratulations, you're on top of the world," Sharapova says. "And the next day it's all over and you go home and you're in your normal life. … It's like nothing happened. My friends are still at work. Everyone's doing the same thing."
Don't be mistaken. Sharapova lives to win. But she can now appreciate that "a lot of work goes into lifting up a trophy for 10 seconds in your life."
Getting her groove back
When the former No. 1 returned in May at a small event in Warsaw, she was beside herself.
"Giddy," says Michael Joyce, who became Sharapova's full-time hitting partner in 2005.
Still, progress came in fits and starts. She struggled through four consecutive three-set matches to reach the French Open quarterfinals but lost in the second round of Wimbledon. Employing an abbreviated service motion to preserve the repaired rotator cuff, Sharapova never found her groove.
Her power game resembled nothing of the player who had started 2008 by pummeling Lindsay Davenport, Justine Henin, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic— all past, present or future No. 1s — at the 2008 Australian Open during a season-opening 18-match winning streak.
Sharapova recalls the feeling as playing "like a horse with blinders — nothing bothered me."
As she tried different deliveries, a cascade of embarrassing double faults — including a 2009 tour-high of 20 in a loss to American Melanie Oudin at the U.S. Open — rained down around her. Sharapova calls the constant tweaking "laughable" but admits the serving woes were troublesome
"The double faults were getting into her head a little bit," Joyce says, especially the more people talked about it.
After the U.S. Open, Sharapova returned to a longer motion and promptly claimed her first title in 18 months at Tokyo in October. She started 2009 outside the top 100 but finished at No. 14.
"Finally I wasn't scared to go out and hit the ball," says Sharapova, who did deal with soreness during her comeback when she played a lot.
"You could just see that confidence come back — it was a relief to her," Joyce says.
If Sharapova had to retool the muscle memory on her service motion, her boardroom acumen needed no overhaul. With a business sense as sharp as her down-the-line backhand, Sharapova continues to rake in far more each year than the $13 million in career prize money she has earned. In her abbreviated 2009 season, Sharapova earned $898,619 on the court, but her off-court earnings were consistent
What makes her so potent is her mix of looks, charisma, consistent performance and, so far, impeccable behavior, according to Bob Dorfman, analyst and author of the Sports Marketing Scouting Report.
"I call it the three P's — performance, personality and purity," Dorfman says. "She's pretty much at the top in all three."
At 22, Sharapova is working on a branding strategy that can outlast her playing days, similar to those successfully employed by retired Michael Jordan and Greg Norman. Instead of shilling her image, she has increasingly sought licensing agreements with her sponsors such as Nike and Tag Heuer that allow her to take a piece of the performance pie.
Such deals are "really reserved for the upper echelon of athlete endorsers," says Bob Williams, the chief executive of Burns Entertainment and Sports Marketing, a firm that negotiates endorsements for companies.
"The goal is to make the business live beyond her tennis," says Sharapova's longtime IMG agent, Max Eisenbud.
Sharapova is even branching into TV production, forming a company called 30001 Productions (named for the zip code of the Australian Open in Melbourne). Sharapova will executive produce two shows in development, one animated the other an Entourage-like drama whose pilot has been optioned to cable outlet CW.
"It's pretty tough as a 22-year-old to sit here and say, 'One day I'm going to have an empire business,' but I certainly want to keep things moving when I'm done with tennis," Sharapova says."I don't want to just sit on my butt. I'm young, I have many goals, and I want to keep going."
On cue, three of her biggest sponsors, Nike, Tag Heuer, and Prince, are launching products tied to her name this month to coincide with the kickoff of her 2010 season.
Nike, for instance, is preparing to announce a new Maria Sharapova clothing line in Melbourne, including a dress she will debut that was inspired by drawings from the small sketch book she carries with her all over the world.
"She's the whole package, and resonates with that young consumer across the globe," says Chad Haws, general manager for the shoe and apparel behemoth.
"Her brand has opened doors for us," says Steve Davis, vice president of global product development for Prince, which has a lifetime contract with Sharapova and is using her in a campaign for its new EXO3 Black racquet.
Offers come in all the time, but Sharapova — wary of comparisons to Russian Anna Kournikova, who cashed in on her looks but didn't have the on-court success to back it up — is not afraid to say no.
"I know my limit … and I also know what keeps me interested and what makes it fun for me," she says of keeping tennis her top priority.
Sharapova's Midas touch is not lost on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour. As much as any player, Sharapova drives ticket sales, media coverage and TV ratings for women's tennis. Tournament directors clamor for her in their draws. Producers juggle their schedules to broadcast her in prime time. And the buzz she generates attracts more casual fans to the sport.
ESPN officials say she is one of the few players that move the needle "regardless of the score." Indeed, ESPN2's highest-rated tennis telecast was the 2007 Australian Open final, when tennis' other dial-moving diva, Serena Williams, defeated Sharapova in straight sets.
"For women's tennis, Maria provides a diverse array of marketing platforms and brand values that drive consumer engagement across our events, along with television ratings, digital media consumption and sponsorship," WTA CEO Stacey Allaster says.
Her return to elite status certainly can't hurt the tour, which is in negotiations with title sponsor Sony Ericsson, whose six-year, $88 million deal ends in 2010. (Sharapova also has a separate global sponsor deal with the mobile phone maker.)
"Having a branded global superstar that lacks baggage and controversy — as Sharapova does — provides an important story line and marketing buzz for those associated with the Tour," according to David M. Carter, executive director of the University of Southern California Sports Business Institute.
Off the court
On the personal front, Sharapova is evolving.
Always preternaturally mature and unafraid to take charge of her career, Sharapova's once omnipresent (and often controversial) father, Yuri, has faded into the background. He was seldom seen at events in 2009, a trend that started four years ago.
"We've been a great team for many years, but there's a life for me, there's another life for you," Sharapova says her father told her after winning the Australian Open. He follows her matches religiously, says Sharapova — an only child — but spends most of his time hiking, skiing and pursuing business interests in Russia.
Filling some of the void for Sharapova is new romantic interest Sasha Vujacic of Slovenia, who plays guard for the Los Angeles Lakers. They started dating when she returned from Tokyo in the fall following her breakup with Charlie Ebersol, the son of NBCUniversal Sports & Olympics chairman Dick Ebersol.
An apparently smitten Sharapova says a big part of the attraction is their common experience as world-class athletes.
"We rarely talk about sports, but it's just an understanding of what we do," she says. "We never have to talk about it. We just know. It's there. It makes it easier and nicer."
Sharapova won't be taking it easy or nice on the competition. That has always been her forte: laser, deadly, clinical focus.
The question is whether she can win more majors and be a dominant player again. Joyce for one is convinced she can.
"She finished the year in a pretty good spot, and it looks to me like she could have a pretty good Act II," Joyce says.
Sharapova insists she will as long as her shoulder stays healthy.
"It's definitely not the easiest thing to be watching Grand Slams and to see a few suspect candidates in the later stages of the tournament," says Sharapova, who clearly believes she should be holding the trophy, regardless how fleeting the euphoria is.
Observers say this season could reveal where Sharapova will stand in the pecking order.
Says ESPN's Pam Shriver: "If she doesn't have a run of supreme confidence in 2010, it will be a concern whether she'll have another run again. It's a huge year for her to show whether she'll be a force in her mid-to-late 20s or not."
In that sense, Melbourne's loaded draw will be a litmus test.
"A name like Maria's is always good for fans to see in the draw," 2009 U.S. Open champ Kim Clijsters says, "and as a competitor you like to play against those players who bring out the best in you."
Not since the 2006 Australian Open have the most prolific Grand Slam winners of the last decade — Serena and Venus Williams, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Clijsters and Henin— joined Sharapova at the same major.
"It's going to be a pretty full deck," Sharapova says.
Plus, there are paybacks. Sharapova is winless against the Williams sisters in their last six meetings, and her 0-4 stretch against defending Melbourne champion Serena goes back to 2004, the year she deposed the 28-year-old American at Wimbledon.
However, she doesn't expect to be crisscrossing the globe chasing trophies much past 30.
"Not because I don't love the sport," she says. "I think at a certain point, especially as a woman, there are other things to life."
Sharapova wants to have kids, though she can't replicate her family's recent history. Her mother gave birth to her at 20.
"We're already past that," she laughs.