By Eric Wilson
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
But you had to wonder: Was Maria Sharapova really all that
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
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
"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.' "
Obviously, she was correct. In her own words, she now has "money
that will feed my great-grandchildren." (For those following her
love life, Ms. Sharapova said she is looking forward to starting a
family with her fiancé, Sasha Vujacic of the Los Angeles
It was during her painful and frustrating rehabilitation in
Phoenix, however, that her perceptions about her success began to
change. A chronic shoulder injury that surfaced in 2007, and
required an operation the following year, forced Ms. Sharapova to
face the reality that her career on the court will someday be over.
And where will she be without an opponent to face?
Coincidentally, she had read an article in USA Today that shocked
her, about the financial problems facing former professional
athletes. Willie Davis, the football legend, had lost millions
during the recession with the closing of a California bank in which
he was a large investor. A surprising number of football players
had filed for bankruptcy protection a few years after the end of
Restless and ready to work, Ms. Sharapova called Mr. Eisenbud, who
has managed her career since she signed with the talent agency IMG
at age 11, and told him to contact all her sponsors. Their
contracts typically limited each company's access to Ms. Sharapova
to 10 or 12 days each year.
"I don't care what's in the contracts," she told him. "Tell them
I'll do whatever they want, whatever they need."
She was determined to set Brand Maria in motion well before she
was through playing tennis.
In a sense, her victory at Wimbledon came too early in the career
of an athlete who was interested in blue-chip endorsements - one
who, like the Williams sisters before her, was most interested in
Ms. Sharapova often complained to Nike that the outfits they
provided were not suited to her frame. She brought a sketch pad to
tournaments and filled her hotel rooms with fashion magazines. She
asked Anna Wintour, who has a keen interest in tennis players, for
career advice - whether she thought it was a good idea for her to
design a collection. ("Be careful," Ms. Sharapova remembers Ms.
Wintour saying. "If you end up failing, you won't have many more
She had also seen the example set by a fellow Russian, Anna
Kournikova, who was famous for her boyfriends and for modeling in
an ad campaign for shock-absorbing sports bras. She decided she
would prefer to appear in a small feature in Vogue wearing a cool
pair of shoes than on the cover of Maxim in a bathing suit. (Ms.
Sharapova did consent to modeling for the Sports Illustrated
swimsuit issue in 2006, for which she appeared in several
polka-dotted bikinis of the itsy bitsy variety.)
She was so sophisticated about protecting her image, Mr. Eisenbud
said in a separate interview, that he had even noticed her begin to
peel the labels off water bottles at appearances in clubs, or
wherever she might be photographed.
Her first big deal resulted from an unscripted moment at
Wimbledon. After she won, her father slipped a cellphone into her
hand so she could call her mother. She dialed the number, over and
over, but the call would not go through. Eventually, she gave up,
apparently unaware the whole episode was shown on television.
Motorola, which was about to introduce its Razr series, signed Ms.
Sharapova the next month. Commercials for Land Rover and Canon
followed, and as her career advanced, Ms. Sharapova saw her name
begin to appear on actual products, like sunglasses and a watch for
Tag Heuer, and jewelry for Tiffany.
For her collaboration with Cole Haan, introduced in August 2009,
she insisted the company include a ballet flat. ("I came in saying,
'You know what? I'm 6 foot-2 and I don't care about anyone else,' "
she said. "I'm going to be selfish and say I love ballerinas.") The
$138 shoes are now among the top-selling items for the entire
Meanwhile, designing clothes had been a much slower goal to
"When I was younger," Ms. Sharapova said, "Nike would put me in
the same clothes as maybe 10 other girls in the tour. We all looked
like clones. I want to be different. If everyone is wearing black,
I want to be wearing red."
Two years after she won at Wimbledon, at the United States Open in
2006, her second grand slam title (she later won a third, at the
Australian Open), she wore a little black dress with a round
crystal collar that was inspired by Audrey Hepburn. It generated
enormous publicity, but the dress, a collaboration between Ms.
Sharapova and the Nike team, was never produced commercially.
"They could have sold a gazillion of those dresses," Mr. Eisenbud
said. "In a perfect world, I bet Nike would love her to wear
something white and plain. That sells better."
It is not as simple as that. For one thing, the custom-made black
dress would have cost $600 or more to reproduce at retail.
A pale yellow dress with corsetry-inspired stitching that Ms.
Sharapova wore at the French Open on Tuesday was different. It was
not something she just happened to pull out of her closet that
morning. Her outfit was decided more than 18 months ago, along with
what she will be wearing at Wimbledon, the United States Open and
other major tournaments throughout the year, with careful
consideration of color trends, fashion forecasts and minute details
like the time of day Ms. Sharapova is likely to play and the color
of the red clay at the French Open.
As part of her new deal with Nike, the company last year finally
began producing and selling a line based on her on-court attire,
and dressing several up-and-coming players, like Julia Goerges of
Germany and Anastasia Pivovarova of Russia, in Maria Sharapova
For example, the same dress Ms. Sharapova is wearing this week,
its crisscross taping inspired by the lines of the Eiffel Tower,
has been at Nike.com and Tennis Warehouse for $120 for several
weeks, something that took months of planning to achieve and
represents a substantial investment on the part of Nike since it
began to coordinate what players wear with what will be in
Mr. Eisenbud said it took more than a year just to convince
retailers that Ms. Sharapova and other players would actually wear
the clothes as promised. But if customers respond as he thinks they
will, the line could develop into something more substantial.
"Could she one day have a brand Maria Sharapova at Nike like
Michael Jordan's?" he said. "I don't want to come across as an
egomaniac. There's only one Michael Jordan. But if we did a good
job with the Maria Sharapova collection, could all the young girls,
in 10 years, want to wear Maria Sharapova? That's what I want to
Derek Kent, a spokesman for Nike, noted the company's history of
creating products with input from athletes, from the runner Steve
Prefontaine to Mr. Jordan, but the degree to which they can become
brands themselves is a more sensitive subject. "With every athlete
relationship, it's always unique," Mr. Kent said. "One side may
want certain things. That's part of the negotiating process."
At the risk of a stupid question, it seems relevant to ask Ms.
Sharapova, at 24, if she had the chance to win Wimbledon again, or
have a brand on the scale of Air Jordan, which would she choose?
Just before the start of the French Open, she responded by e-mail
"The answer is I would win Wimbledon over anything," she said.
"Wimbledon is not something you can buy. A brand is something you