Sponsors adore her, promoters would sell their first-born in order to sign her up while photographers fall over themselves just to get a glimpse of her. Then again, photographers get all unnecessary at the mention of free pies in press canteen, so maybe we should not be too surprised. Anyway – Maria Sharapova is a proper A-list celebrity.
The internet is abuzz with forums and message boards discussing what the great Shazza is wearing, who she is dating and where she is going, while the Twitterati are sent into a retweeting frenzy every time she opens her mouth. Admittedly, our Maria does a nice line in frocks and she is one for a bon mot, but all of this froth and fluff does tend to obscure the fact that she is the second-best female tennis player on the planet. She may look pretty as a picture every time she steps on court, but there is nothing frilly or fanciful about Sharapova’s ambitions: she is here to win. No question, no doubt.
“My focus is always on the next point and to try to win as many of them as possible,” she said simply, having reached the fourth round by clobbering Venus Williams on Friday night. “When you have your chances and opportunities, little doors that open up, you try to take them. Without looking at the scoreboard, I don't want anyone to know what score it is on the scoreboard just by looking at my face or my attitude. I try to play every single point like I really need to win it.”
Many moons ago, when Sharapova was still a teenager, albeit a grand slam-winning teenager, she was playing Elena Dementieva in the quarter-finals at Wimbledon. Suddenly from the stands there sprang a gentleman of ample proportions clad only in running shoes. He scampered across the Centre Court, did a cartwheel and was eventually nabbed by security who covered his embarrassment with a blanket and hauled him away. Dementieva was transfixed and, hooting with laughter, she enjoyed every moment of the interruption.
At the other end of the court, Shazza was stone-faced. With her back to the court and ignoring the commotion, she went through her usual pre-point rituals: clench the fist, look at the racket strings, bounce up and down... And then, when the fuss had subsided, she turned back to face Dementieva and thumped her 6-1 6-4. That is just the way Sharapova is made – she is built to win.
It does make you fear for Kirsten Flipkens, Sharapova’s next opponent. The Belgian has never got to the fourth round of a grand slam before and, this week, she sits at her career high ranking of No.43 in the world. This is as good as it has ever got for Flipkens. And now she has to face Sharapova, the same Sharapova who has dropped just four games so far and who bagelled her first two opponents. Oh, dear.
“It's always the ultimate goal is to get to the later stages of the grand slams,” Sharapova said. “That's really where you need to improve, and the matches always get more tougher and more physical.
“In a way, I am quite experienced about how to pace myself mentally and physically throughout these two weeks, because it's a long grind. Not one match is the same. Not one day is the same. Of course, it's tough to be as fresh in the finals as you are in the first round. But it's certainly a great achievement, and I'm happy that I've been able to be so consistent. But I'm not looking to stop in the quarterfinals.”
Since she won Wimbledon as a 17-year-old all those years ago, Sharapova has been a professional celebrity. Thrust into the fame game, she has handled herself with style and panache: she can be funny, she can be charming, she can sharp and she can spot a muppet a mile off (just try asking her a stupid question in a press conference and see how far you get). But deep down, beneath all the glamour and glitz, Sharapova is just a jock and she will sweat and graft and scrap and battle to win each match. Any match.
“I love competing,” she said. “There’s nothing in the world that gives you that adrenalin feel, just being in the moment of a match. There’s nothing that I’ve done in my life that has given me that experience: being on the court. It takes a lot to get to that moment, a feeling, whether it’s pressure or nerves, excitement, it’s a combination of those things, but that feeling, and getting through it and winning, beating your opponent, as an athlete.
“It’s different, I think, to other careers. It’s not like you’re a great actress and you can be so good but nobody goes and watches your plays, or you can be the greatest model in the world but if somebody doesn’t put you on the cover of a magazine, you’re never going to be famous. This sport, it’s all in your own hands and that’s what I love about it: you control your own wins and losses.”
And, so far, she has been controlling those wins rather well at Melbourne Park. It is not only Flipkens who had better have her wits about her – anyone with serious ambitions to the title is going to have a job on their hands to get past Sharapova is pursuit of a second Australian Open title.