Not long ago when women’s tennis hardly looked beyond the Williams household, stray threats from Justine Henin or Kim Clijsters, there arrived a stock of Russian blondes, thrusting their glamour than game, lending a hitherto unparalleled voyeuristic feel to the game.
The year 2004 saw Anastasia Myskina’s victory run in the French Open - the first Russian woman to win a Grand Slam and the first Russian to reach the top 3 in the rankings history (World No. 2 in September 2004). The same year, Maria Sharapova, the long-legged grunt queen, claimed the Wimbledon title and Svetlana Kuznetsova buckled the US Open. Another of their ilk, Elena Dementieva, emerged runner-up in French and US Open.
Thus began the Russian Revolution in tennis. The notable of all was the beautiful Sharapova. And it didn’t take much time for the Russian to become a marketing maven’s dream girl.
Siberia-born Sharapova left for the US when she was just seven years old with father Yuri, dreaming of a scholarship in the famous Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, from where the likes of Andre Agassi and Monica Seles nuanced their game. She once described life in the boarding school in the initial stages, where she had to live in a dorm with much older girls for couple of years.
Unlike the original Russian glam-girl Anna Kournikova - who famously quipped Martina Hingis after losing, “You won, but I’m prettier and more marketable than you”--Sharapova possessed good tennis skills on the court too.
Sharapova, who turned pro in 2001, made her professional breakthrough in 2004 when she was only 17. A superb display dethroned two-time defending champion and top seed Serena Williams in the 2004 Wimbledon final - her first Grand Slam singles title.
As anticipated, Sharapova couldn’t live up to the early hype with a series of losses and to make it worse a shoulder injury, which kept her away from the competitive scene for few months. A shoulder surgery in 2008 kept her out of tennis for the major part of the season and her rankings plummeted to 126. Alas, experts even predicted the end of her career.
But this was not to be for long. After a 10-month layoff, Sharapova returned to play tennis but couldn’t turn heads. All notwithstanding, 2011 proved fruitful for the Russian star as she surprised all to hog the limelight by registering a few WTA victories. She fought hard to reach the French Open semi-final and the Wimbledon final, where she lost to Petra Kvitova in straight sets. Her Wimbledon performance has reignited her lost charm, and experts predict the poster girl to regain her lost empire.
Additionally, the former World No. 1 has been listed eighth in the most valuable sports brand list by the Forbes Magazine this year. According to Forbes, her name costs 9 million dollars and she is the only female athlete to make it to the list.
Maria Sharapova, who was World No. 1 in singles on four separate occasions, currently stands second in the rankings below Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki. With Williams sisters and Clijsters plagued by injuries, her return to the helm in the apparent future cannot be discounted. That Wozniacki has no Grand Slam title to her credit would hopefully turn in Sharapova’s favour.