WHEN Maria Sharapova won her first grand slam title in 2004, at age 17, she made the cover of Sports Illustrated. The issue showed Ms. Sharapova at the moment she became a household name, proudly beaming on court at Wimbledon in a body-skimming white tank dress from Nike. “Star Power,” the headline read.

“And do you think I knew what Sports Illustrated was?” Ms. Sharapova said recently, recalling the moment when her agent, Max Eisenbud, first showed her the magazine, expecting her to be as excited as he was. “I knew what Vogue was, but I didn’t know what Sports Illustrated was.”

Ms. Sharapova, over coffee at a SoHo hotel last month, laughed at herself, saying, “When you are young, you are a little naïve.”

But you had to wonder: Was Maria Sharapova really all that naïve?

One does not become the highest paid female athlete in the world without recognizing that the greatest potential for earnings comes not from winning championships, but from endorsement deals, particularly with fashion and sportswear brands. Ms. Sharapova, now 24 years old and the seventh ranked women’s singles player, made $24.5 million from June 2009 to June 2010, according to Forbes, about $4 million more than her nearest competitor, Serena Williams.

Last year, she renewed her contract with Nike in an expanded eight-year deal that is estimated to be worth as much as $70 million, the most ever for a female athlete, including royalties from clothes she designs for Nike. She also designs shoes and handbags for Cole Haan and endorses luxury brands like Tiffany and Tag Heuer, and the electronics company Sony Ericsson.

Expanding her reach into the unexpected, she is about to announce a new partnership with Jeff Rubin, the man who helped create Dylan’s Candy Bar in 2001 and a chain of candy shops inside F. A. O. Schwarz stores (called F. A. O. Schweetz) in the 1990s, to develop her own brand of candy and sweets. Gumballs will be shaped like tennis balls, and gummy candies will be packaged in containers shaped like tennis-ball cans, according to plans drawn up by Mr. Rubin, who hopes to have them ready in time for a rollout at the United States Open in August.

The name of her brand? Sugarpova.

Despite recent progress in her professional comeback, which has been regarded somewhat skeptically since a shoulder operation in 2008 took her out of the game for most of a year, Ms. Sharapova is laying the groundwork for what her life will be like after tennis. Ever the ferocious (and vocal) competitor, her victory on a clay court at the Italian Open in Rome on May 15 may have set up a possible storyline for a Sharapova revival, as she entered the French Open this week as one of the tournament’s favorites.

But it is her competitiveness off the court that has made for a more riveting match in recent years, as Ms. Sharapova fights for turf among those athletes who aspire to become brands — pushing both Nike and Cole Haan to produce more of her designs, creating the candy business and now expanding her online presence with a Facebook page with 4.3 million fans. (That’s more than any other female athlete has, she pointed out.)

As she walked past the suits sitting at the white-linen-covered tables of the restaurant in the Trump SoHo hotel, in a loose, black-and-white flecked halter top and high-waisted black trousers that made her look even taller than her 6 feet 2 inches, a few early-morning diners looked up from their plates. Model? Actress? It was a few moments before her name could be recognized among their whispers. She hardly seemed to notice the attention, but then it would take a lot more than that to break Ms. Sharapova’s focus.

“I’ve been very competitive by nature from a young age, whether it was eating a bowl of pasta faster than somebody else, or always wanting to be the first one in line,” she said. When she was 13, training on scholarship at the Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla., a reporter from “HBO Real Sports” asked her if she had the chance to win Wimbledon or make $20 million in endorsements, which would she choose? She looked into the camera and said, without hesitation, “I would choose to win Wimbledon, because then the millions will come.”

Retelling the story, Ms. Sharapova said: “I looked at the guy — and I remember this — I thought to myself, ‘Are you stupid? Maybe I’m not getting things. How could he even ask me this question. You can’t buy Wimbledon. It’s not purchasable. You have to earn Wimbledon. Second of all, if you win Wimbledon, of course you are going to get this money. I mean, it’s Wimbledon.’ I’m thinking this and then I find myself saying this — not the first part, not the fact he is asking me a stupid question — but the second part that, of course, if you win Wimbledon, then the money is going to come. Looking back on that, I thought, ‘God, I had guts. I was brave to say that.’ ”

Continue Reading….


Leave a Reply