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Grand slam designs: Maria's fashion statement

Posted on January 27, 2012

http://edition.cnn.com/2012/01/27/sport/tennis/tennis-sharapova-grand-slam-design/index.html

By Paul Gittings

Maria Sharapova certainly means business when she steps onto a tennis court.

Whatever the situation, winning or losing, there is no let-up. A big serve, blistering ground strokes, winning points often greeted with a clenched fist and shrieks of exultation.

Opponents are not so much beaten as bludgeoned into submission -- although at the handshake Sharapova is never less than courteous and sporting, the intensity replaced by a smile.

It's a winning formula that has brought the 24-year-old Russian three grand slam titles and made her the highest-paid sportswoman in the world, with an eight-year Nike deal worth a reported $70 million.

She can return to the top of the world rankings by winning Saturday's Australian Open final, capping a remarkable comeback after injuries almost ended her career.

With such a hunger for success, it's no surprise that Sharapova pays great attention to every aspect of her performance -- and that extends to her on-court appearance and apparel.

"When you look good, you feel good," she told CNN.

"Confidence with what you're wearing is very important. If you feel good, you will always perform your best without worrying about anything."

A shrewd businesswoman off the court, Sharapova took matters into her own hands with her own range of clothing and footwear, which has developed into a successful commercial venture.

The Maria Sharapova Collection is made in collaboration with her sportswear sponsors and leading fashion house Cole Haan.

First launched at the Australian Open two years ago, the design brief is to come up with a separate outfit for each grand slam. This year's offering in Melbourne is called "The Statement Slam."

Sharapova has already made a big statement by beating Petra Kvitova, her conqueror in last year's Wimbledon final, to set up a title clash with Victoria Azarenka.

Maybe, just maybe, the outfit played its part.

The PR handout from Nike would certainly have us believe it.
"The carefully-constructed vents with mesh inlays along the bodice reflect the breathable gills of a powerful shark or super-charged race car and help keep Sharapova cool and ready to attack. Contrast color in the mesh becomes a stealth weapon to distract the opponent."

Whatever the hype, a great deal of work goes into the final product, with the process starting up to 18 months before it is unveiled and made available to the general public.

Sharapova is intimately involved in the design process of the outfit to which she lends her name, coming up with sketches and design ideas.

"It's exciting to see my collections in the store," she said. "What's even more thrilling is to see women wearing and loving the product. If I can create something that allows a woman to feel better -- that is the true reward."

Several young female players on the WTA Tour sport her collection in tournament play, including Sofia Arvidsson, Kai-Chen Chang, Indy De Vroome, Andrea Hlavackova, Madison Keys and Anastasia Pivovarova.

In fact, her reputation for fashion sense is already legendary among the game's elite.

When Rafael Nadal was questioned at the Australian Open about the design of his training top, the world No. 2 owned up.

"I'm not Sharapova," the Spaniard told reporters. "Maria is doing it. I just say, 'I like, I don't like!' "

Don Hightower, the president of major U.S. retailer Tennis Warehouse, told CNN that the clothing range was well thought out.

"It's the perfect combination of fashion and function. Maria's dress has become consistently more marketable over the last few years," he said.

But she faces as much competition off the court as on it. Especially among the women, the leading tennis players are battling for world domination in the fashion stakes.

The Williams sisters Serena and Venus have their own ranges, while recently-deposed No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki has paired with British designer Stella McCartney to produce eye-catching outfits.

Hightower said his outlets see a spike during the grand slams as customers want to purchase the latest ranges, but noted that the Sharapova-led Nike offering is "the clear leader in women's tennis apparel."

Sharapova has history in setting fashion trends -- the diamond-encrusted 'Little Black Dress" she wore on the way to winning the 2006 U.S. Open was widely acclaimed.

At the time, Nike did not market the outfit for wider distribution, but the company is determined to avoid a repeat and capitalize on Sharapova's global appeal.

Her collaboration with Cole Haan has extended to an exclusive range of women's fashion clothing and a series of glitzy publicity launches.

It undoubtedly helps that Sharapova -- at 1.88 meters (six foot two inches) -- has the natural height of a supermodel and is the perfect showcase for her creations.

"Since I was young, the artistic expression that fashion embodies has inspired me," Sharapova said. "It's a way to communicate oneself."

When Sharapova does decide to hang up her rackets, it is fair to assume that she will utilize her flair for design and business savvy to extend her fashion empire.

She would follow legendary style names such as 1930s tennis icons Henri Lacoste and Fred Perry, while of the more recently retired stars Martina Hingis has a new collection set to hit the stores.

For now, tennis takes precedence, and success in the 2012 season is a priority.

"I'm focused on going out every day and doing my best," Sharapova said.

Of that there is no doubt.

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