Her Glam Slam
Bruce Emond, WEEKENDER | Thu, 10/27/2011 12:12 PM |
Maria Sharapova is a champion both on the tennis court and in the endorsement arena. What really matters to the world’s highest paid female athlete?
Maria Sharapova might be a 10-year veteran of the women’s tennis tour, but she’s quick to remind us that she is still very young.
“I do not even know what I will be doing tomorrow,” the Russian says when asked about what she hopes to be doing in 10 years’ time. “You know, people tend to forget I am only 24 years old when they ask this question. I am focused on tennis right now. In 10 years, I just hope I am happy and healthy and doing what I love.”
She has nevertheless packed in a lot of tennis and living. In a now legendary story of parental devotion, the Serbian-born tennis prodigy said goodbye to her mother and moved with her father to the United States at the age of seven to train at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy.
Tennis pundits and the media realized there was something about Maria when she blossomed into a talented, and very pretty, teenager. But it was her unexpected fairy-tale run to the 2004 Wimbledon title that won her the attention of an international audience. Her blonde good looks also garnered a slew of lucrative advertising contracts, leading to comparisons with her famously attractive compatriot, Anna Kournikova, as well as the photogenic pack of her contemporaries, among them Ana Ivanovic, Maria Kirilenko and Daniela Hantuchova.
Sharapova and her agents have since raised the glamour marketing stakes to a whole new level. Her US$16.5 million in career earnings (including prize money from 24 titles, among them three Grand Slams) is a mere fraction of her haul from exclusive endorsements of products ranging from cameras and sports drinks to fashion brands to precision timepieces. In 2010, for at least the third time in recent years, Forbes identified her as the world’s highest paid female athlete with earnings of $24.5 million. And last year, she signed a $70 million, eight-year contract with Nike, the most lucrative endorsement for a female athlete in history.
The risk for athletes is that such off-court activities will distract them from the business of winning. For the determined Sharapova, who won the 2006 US Open and 2008 Australian Open and reached world number one, that has never been the problem. Rather, a severe shoulder injury and resulting surgery put her career in jeopardy with an almost year-long recovery hiatus in 2008 and 2009.
Sharapova, who describes herself as “strong-minded, sincere and fashionista”, has gradually returned to the top of the game. This year, she won the Italian Open, reached the semifinals of the French Open (losing to eventual champion Li Na of China) and was the runner-up at Wimbledon to Petra Kvitova. She also climbed back to number two in the world rankings.
She has an air of maturity about her, even at her admittedly tender age, and the famous single-mindedness on court that had some labeling her an “ice queen”. As her fiancé, basketball player Sasha Vujacic, looked on at Wimbledon, Sharapova was gracious in defeat (she is one of the few players in either the men’s or women’s game who never publicly bad-mouths her opponents).
In late September at the Toray Pan Pacific tournament in Tokyo, she twisted her ankle and was forced to retire against Kvitova. It gave Sharapova time to answer questions for the WEEKENDER about her fantastic endorsement earnings, her charity work and family ties.
You have enjoyed resurgent career fortunes this year after difficult years with injury. Compared to your early success as a teenager, is second time around sweeter because of what you went through – and what do you still want to achieve?
MARIA SHARAPOVA: If I can win another Grand Slam post shoulder surgery, I think for sure it will be the most important win of my career. Most tennis players never come back from the shoulder injury that I had and I am really proud of all the obstacles and doubts I had to overcome to get myself back to the top of women’s tennis. I always knew that I loved the game and loved to compete, but when I was out with this injury, it really opened my eyes to how much I love the game and how much I needed it.
Tennis consumes so much of your time. How do you use the rest of your time effectively, and what do you do to channel and balance your other interests?
MS: I have a really good team around me on and off the court. Tennis is always my number 1, number two 2 and number 3 priorities but I have been very fortunate to work with some amazing companies like TAG Heuer, who has been with me since 2005 and has supported me when I am holding trophies and when I am coming out of surgery. I have a great system in place which balances my tennis time and time with my sponsors. I also have a ton of downtime on the road, so I really enjoy working on my Nike or Cole Haan collections or collaborating with TAG Heuer.
You are the highest earning sportswoman; at the end of the day, what does money mean to you?
MS: Money has allowed me to finally give back, first to my family, Mom and Dad, who sacrificed everything they had to make my dream come true, and then, give back to the community, through my foundation and through the United Nations Development Programme projects, among which is the one for the Chernobyl region. I became involved with the UNDP as a goodwill ambassador. They stressed the urgency to do something in Belarus. As my family is originally from Gomel, near Chernobyl, I immediately felt the cause was close to my heart and supported the project the best I could. The first three scholarships were awarded in November 2009, and we aim for a total of 12 scholarships by 2012.
The bulk of your earnings comes from endorsements. How do you go about picking the products that are right for you, and what does it take to get your endorsement?
MS: How to decide which brand to endorse or not? My agent laughs at my fantastic ability to say “No” to projects I do not endorse 100 percent. I mean I really have to feel deeply implicated in the brand, to be able to put passion into it. It is the case with TAG Heuer: we really share the same values. They are a brand that keeps on reinventing itself, keeps on innovating, keeps on fighting for their position. They never take things for granted and keep challenging their craft.
As for the details, I feel I am an extremely lucky woman as I have been able to let my team handle it and concentrate on my tennis! Since the beginning of my professional career, I have been surrounded by a team of professionals who have helped me grow not only on the tennis courts but also develop a real business and endorsement strategy around my name which has paid off over the time. I am very grateful to all of them and but I also feel blessed that I was able to find people I could trust 100 percent for this.
If you had a magic wand to solve any problem in the world, what would it be, and why?
MS: I feel so blessed that I have been able to find a passion in my life, to have been able to produce the hard work and to have gotten the training needed to make my dreams come true that any cause linked to youth education is very close to my heart. I really think it is so important to be able to give young people not only the will, but also the financial means to pursue their dreams. So with a magic wand, I would have all states make youth education their priority. Oh, and I would reduce travel time between tournaments to a click of a heel.
Who are your everyday heroes, and why?
MS: My parents. They sacrificed to allow me to follow my dream to become a professional player. They taught me so much, they also taught me to give back.
What is the most misunderstood thing about you, and do you care what people assume about you?
MS: Nothing people can say would ever overshadow all the love I get from my fans. They are so loyal, amazing, cheering me up when I am down, they are proud of what I have accomplished. So I do not pay much attention to rumors or negative comments.
Born in Siberia, raised in the US, traveling the world: What is the common denominator you have found among people?
MS: I guess we all have dreams, different dreams, but a dream to pursue.
Finally, you have many fans in Indonesia. Any plans to visit here one day?
MS: My team is always telling me that I have so many fans in Indonesia, which is really nice to hear. I don’t have any plans right now, but maybe I can push my agent to put an exhibition match there one day so all my fans can watch me play live instead of on TV.
The interview was made possible through the assistance of TAG Heuer and Time International. .