Professional tennis player
Born April 19, 1987, in Nyagan, Siberia, Russian Federation; daughter of Yuri and Yelena Sharapova.
Addresses: Agent —International Management Group, IMG Center, 1360 E. 9th St., Ste. 100, Cleveland, OH 44114.
Signed with sports agency division of the International Management Group, c. 1996; won endorsement contracts with racket-maker Prince and Nike; turned professional in April of 2001 and joined the Women's Tennis Association tour; ranked No. 4 women's player in the world, November, 2004.
Awards: Holds the 2003 women's singles titles for the DFS Classic (Birmingham, England), Japan Open, and Bell Challenge (Quebec City, Canada); holds 2004 women's singles title from The Championships at Wimbledon, Japan Open, and WTA Championships (Los Angeles, CA).
Maria Sharapova's stunning victory over Serena Williams at Wimbledon in July of 2004 for the women's singles title in tennis prompted predictions that the lithe, 17-year-old Russian would dominate women's tennis in the coming decade.
Sharapova's story has all the elements of a sports-legend-in-the-making. She was born in 1987 in Nyagan, Siberia, an area known for its oil fields and refineries, but her parents Yuri and Yelena were originally from Belarus. Just a year before she was born, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the Ukraine exploded, and the disaster sent families from the area, including Belarus, eastward to escape the toxic fallout. In 1989, the Sharapovas relocated once again, but this time to Sochi, a city in a more temperate south Russian climate and noted Black Sea resort town.
Sharapova began playing tennis at a very young age. By the time she was five, her parents took her to a tennis event in Moscow, where she was hitting balls around at a children's clinic when tennis legend Martina Navratilova, the event's big draw, saw her play and had a word with the Sharapovas. "What I saw in Sharapova was not just in the way she played tennis," the Czech-born holder of nine Wimbledon titles wrote in an article for London's Guardian newspaper some years later. "It was there in the way she moved, in the way she walked and the way she would kick a ball or pick it up and throw it. You cannot teach that fluidity or that ease of movement," Navratilova declared.
When she was seven, the Sharapovas decided to send their tennis prodigy to a famous tennis camp in Bradenton, Florida. Run by Nick Bollettieri, the Bollettieri Tennis Academy was known for grooming several major players, from Andre Agassi to Venus and Serena Williams, to championship-caliber play. There were two issues, however: the family was only able to get an exit visa for one parent, and they had no invitation from Bollettieri. But Yuri Sharapova made his way from the Miami airport with his daughter, and she was given a tryout the day they showed up. The coach was so impressed by her nascent skills that he immediately phoned Bollettieri. Sharapova began training there, and did not see her mother for the next two years. That same year, when she was nine years old, she won a scholarship spot at the academy, and a contract with the International Management Group, a top sports agency.
Though it may have seemed that Sharapova came out of nowhere to capture the Wimbledon title in 2004, the teenager had actually made it to the fourth round at the venerable English contest the year before. She then went on to win three tournaments over the next year—the DFS Classic in Birmingham, England, the Japan Open, and Quebec City's Bell Challenge—before advancing to the quarterfinals of the French Open in May of 2004. When the Wimbledon matches began a month later, she was ranked 13th in the world and bested her opponents all the way to the finals. Serena Williams was a tough challenge for even the most experienced of players, but midway through the second set, the American champion "found herself sprawling in the dust beyond the baseline," noted a sportswriter for the Guardian, Richard Williams. "Chasing a deep cross-court forehand at the end of a long rally in which she had been pulled from side to side and lured fore and aft by the guile and power of Sharapova's driving from both wings, finally one attempt to apply the brakes and shift her weight had proved too much."
Sharapova beat Williams in straight sets, 6-1, 6-4, to become the first Russian player ever to win Wimbledon. She was also one of the youngest players in tournament history to capture what is known as one of the sport's four Grand Slam titles, which refer to Wimbledon, and the French, U.S., and Australian Opens. Even she was a bit stunned by her victory, she confessed to reporters in the post-game press conference. "To tell you the truth, I don't know what happened in the match," the New York Times 's Clarey quoted her as saying. "I don't know what the tactics were. I was just out there. I was just playing. I could really not care less what was going on outside me. I was in my own little world."
Sharapova's rise marked the first time since 1999 that neither Serena nor Venus Williams was holding a Grand Slam singles title. There were high expectations for Sharapova's next big match, the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, New York, but she barely beat the no. 68-ranked player, Laura Granville, in the opening round, and lost to veteran player Mary Pierce in the third round. She won her second Japan Open title later that year, however, and bested Williams once again at the WTA Championships in Los Angeles in November of 2004.
The U.S. Open loss, despite the major hype surrounding Sharapova's appearance, did little to dampen enthusiasm for what some journalists had dubbed "Maria Mania." Sharapova possesses endorsement contracts from Prince rackets, Nike, and even Motorola cellular phones, and signed with IMG's modeling division. Her earning potential sometimes prompts comparisons to Anna Kournikova, another attractive blonde Russian player who won many lucrative endorsement contracts despite a lack of Grand Slam titles. Sharapova displays a barely concealed weariness in interviews when asked about Kournikova, but delivers polite retorts—in near-flawless English—on the subject of letting her early promise become eclipsed by her celebrity. "Being a tennis babe doesn't do it for me," Sharapova told Miami Herald writer Michelle Kaufman. "If that's what people are hoping for, then I'm afraid they're going to be disappointed. Of course I like to look good on court, but I'm there for business, to play tennis and win, not to look sexy."
Guardian (London, England), July 3, 2004, p. 2; July 5, 2004, p. 12.
Miami Herald, June 28, 2004.
New York Times, June 29, 2004, p. D1; July 4, 2004, p. SP1, p. SP3; September 1, 2004, p. D1; November 16, 2004, p. D4.
Sports Illustrated, July 7, 2003, p. 72; July 26, 2004, p. 58.
"Maria Mania: No Stopping Her Now," CNN Money, http://money.cnn.com/2004/08/27/commentary/column_sportsbiz/sportsbiz/in ex.htm (December 18, 2004).
"Sharapova Wins Japan Open," USA Today.com, http://www.usatoday.com/sports/tennis/2004-10-09-roundup_x.htm (December 18, 2004).
"Stunning Sharapova Wins the Title," CNN.com, www.cnn.com/2004/SPORT/07/03/tennis.sharapova.reut/index.html (December 18, 2004).