Sharapova on Wimbledon, Sponsors and Celebs

Maria Sharapova is said to be the highest-paid female athlete in the world. The 6-feet-2 tennis champion—she’s so tall she instinctively prepares to duck when she walks through a doorway—is estimated to make $20 million a year in sponsorship deals. Right now she’s at Wimbledon, hoping to win back the title she won there three years ago, at a mere 17.

Can she do it? Sharapova has fresh confidence after her victory at last year’s U.S. Open silenced detractors who suggested that she was spending more time marketing herself than perfecting her backhand. But she certainly faces stiff competition. Aside from a shoulder injury, the No. 1 seed Justine Henin, who won the French Open last month, is said to be especially hungry to win Wimbledon—a title which has thus far eluded her. American sisters Venus and Serena Williams and Serbians Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic could also stop Sharapova’s return to center court.

As the tournament got under way in London, NEWSWEEK's Ginanne Brownell spoke to Sharapova about her sponsors, life in the celebrity fishbowl and, oh yes, tennis. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Do people stop you on the street and ask for advice on their serve?
Maria Sharapova:
Sometimes. I was eating at Nobu in California right before I left and a lady came up to me and asked me for my autograph for her granddaughter. Then she said, “You know I have been having this shoulder pain for a while, what should I do?” And I said, “Well that is a coincidence because I have had a shoulder injury and here is what I have been doing.” (Laughs) I try to keep it short and sweet.

It’s been three years since you came here and dominated center court. How has your life changed since then?
I really have become so much more comfortable in my own skin. I have begun to appreciate fame. Celebrity is such a cheesy word because at the end of the day I never really consider myself a celebrity, I am an athlete. That does not stop.

Do you think you will win this year? Who could pose a serious threat to you?
Apart from my shoulder injury—the right shoulder—it is probably the only thing that I can say right now that can really stop me from having the confidence [that I will win]. But these are just words and you have to go out there and do it somehow.

Did winning the U.S. Open last year help solidify your presence in tennis?
Throughout my career, even before I won Wimbledon, I never felt I had to prove anything to anyone. I realize my parents gave me an incredible opportunity to come to the U.S. [from Russia] and play tennis. I never really stood back and thought this is what I want to do. [After] I won Wimbledon, it was two and a half years before I won the U.S. Open and I was still becoming the player I am now. I was a work in progress and I still am. I am 20 and that is pretty young. It is a different feeling after winning your second slam. You feel like you have more experience.

How do you feel about this being the first year that men and women will make the same amount—for singles this year the prize purse will be £700,000 [almost $1.4 million]. Until now, the argument was that men should make more because they play five sets and women only play three.
Well, I would always joke with the girls that we should get paid more because we are waiting for [the men] to finish their five sets so we can go on the court. (Laughs) But you know it was a team effort [to get equal payment] and that was really impressive. ... We were fighting for so long that when we got it we were like, “Are you sure this is done?” I was actually shopping when I got the message from [Women’s Tennis Association chief] Larry Scott. I called him back and said, “This better be good because I am shopping.” It was such an unexpected thing. People always ask about the money part and it’s not like someone is [short of] money—it was more about the pride and the fact that we are equal. And that is what made it so special.

You are one of the most marketed female athletes in the world at the moment. Do you enjoy that part of the job?
I love trying different things. I get bored with one thing. I have been able to work with all my sponsors. Everything from details on my dress to telling a company my inspiration for their product…Everything still amazes me. From seeing a billboard to watching a commercial I shot a few months ago. It’s like, “Wow, that is me on TV.” I do not think I will every get used to that. It is really not normal. (Giggles)

How much do you make a year for sponsorship deals?
I don’t check on a daily basis what my bank account is.

You were also named earlier this year as a goodwill ambassador to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). What is your role with them?
I am ambassador to Chernobyl—infected areas [like] Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. I donated $100,000 from my charity and it is going to building a new hospital and setting up computer labs, which are good, especially for kids. And also we are setting up an awareness for the good things that are going to come. There is a lot of depression and negative thoughts for people living in those areas because they think that nothing can get done. It can, but it is not an overnight process.

There seem to be these two Marias—the sexy, confident tennis player who leaves opponents in her wake and the Maria who collects stamps and is said to still get star struck. Which one is really you?
I am sure if I saw myself on television playing tennis and pumping my fist and saying “Come ON!” every time, I would say, “Jeez that girl is very unapproachable, she is like steel.” (Giggles) So I guess the coolest thing about my Web site is that I can interact with my fans.  I mean that is who I am, I dedicate six hours a day to my sport, but at the end of the day I just turned 20. My life is really about laughing and hanging out with family and friends.

Do you still wake up and look forward to playing?
Yes. I love the competition, being in those moments when you have to dig it out. It is really a moment that people in the stands cannot appreciate. It is really a shame because that is what gets your juices flowing. That is what I miss most when I am off for so long.