Sharapova enjoys inconspicuous moment

Updated: March 13, 2005, 1:33 PM ET
By Matthew Cronin | Special to ESPN.com

It's almost impossible for Maria Sharapova to be inconspicuous these days, as one of the Web's most-searched female athletes.

Maria Sharapova
APMaria Sharapova couldn't resist a chance to watch Davis Cup play.

But last Sunday, Sharapova sat for four hours watching Andy Roddick play Ivan Ljubicic during the U.S.-Croatia Davis Cup final and few fans noticed her. Perhaps because she was wearing an olive hooded sweatshirt that covered up her famous long hair, or maybe it's simply because she could blend in with all the tall young blondes running around the Home Depot Center.

Sharapova had a blast being a normal teenager as she made three dashes to the concession stands to indulge in some serious junk food. When was the last time you've seen a top athlete with a supermodel's physique wolfing down two hot dogs and a churro?

"I was so bad," a giggling Sharapova told ESPN.com. "But it was fun."

Like Anna Kournikova and Serena Williams before her, Sharapova is attempting to deal with her enormous celebrity while trying to reach the top of her profession. Kournikova failed in her attempt and retired before winning a title, while seven-time Grand Slam champion Williams has been incredibly successful on court and on the red carpet.

"I've always wanted to be a top player," said Sharapova, who is ranked third in the world. "That's been my dream. But what comes with it can be celebrity, and even if it has nothing to do with tennis, it's part of what I do, I have to accept it. If I don't want to be a tennis player, I wouldn't have to accept these things and be that level of celebrity. It's something that comes with sport."

Especially these days, when women's tennis stars are marketed not only for their remarkable forehands and backhands but also for their eye-catching angles and curves. Sharapova understands this. She has cashed in on her looks as well as her huge forehand. Some industry analysts have ventured that she could earn $100 million in sponsorship deals in the next 10 years. On court, she already has banked more than $3 million.

"I know I'm popular and have become a celebrity, not just a tennis player, but an off-court celebrity," Sharapova said. "The more fans I have, I appreciate it. When I'm on court, I think about playing; when I'm with sponsors, I'm like a businesswoman. I do appearances and spend times with sponsors, but then I go home and I'm a normal person. I forget about everything. I have an amazing team around me that when I'm not doing what I should; they allow me to be easygoing and forget about it."

Sharapova is creeping closer and closer to the No. 1 ranking, and should she win the Pacific Life Open this week at Indian Wells, she has terrific shot at passing No. 2 Amelie Mauresmo. If she manages to win back-to-back titles at Indian Wells and Miami, she could conceivably take over the No. 1 spot from Lindsay Davenport by mid-April, which would be a heady achievement for any 17-year-old.

Sharapova says she not focusing on that right now. Instead, she's concentrating on playing well enough to grab wins because she knows that if she keeps racking up victories, the ranking will come. She's more concerned about maintaining a proper balance in her life – keeping it real – and making sure she doesn't become a robotic tennis celebrity in the Kournikova mold.

"It's a business whatever you do," Sharapova said. "But once I'm home, I can sit with a friend, laugh and say how amazing the last year has been. Even with what happened last year, my friends and I are still doing what we did a year ago."

Sharapova caught tennis fever at an early age, and it still hasn't worn off. Saturday night, she saw that Andre Agassi might be playing the fifth and deciding rubber against Mario Ancic and called for Davis Cup tickets. She reveled in the atmosphere while she watched Ljubicic fell once-mighty Roddick. Agassi never made it on the court, but Sharapova didn't care.

"I never felt that Davis Cup or Fed Cup vibe and wanted to see what it was like, and it was really amazing," she said. "Hearing the whole stadium making so much noise was great."

She might get a chance to experience it as a player in April as Russia's Fed Cup captain has said he'd like to have her on the team – despite misgivings potential teammate Anastasia Myskina shared with the media about interference from Sharapova's father.

It would be hard to turn down a major winner. The Russian, who lives in Florida, has developed legions of new fans since she stunned Williams in the Wimbledon final in July.

The celebrity has changed Sharapova's daily life, but she's still willing to go shoe shopping at the mall – even if the boys hanging around the record store start singing "Maria, Maria."

"As I get more popular, having a private life will be harder," she said. "But let people take my picture or my autograph. At the end of the day, I still have the people around me that I need and I still have myself. That's the most important thing."

Matthew Cronin, the managing editor of Inside Tennis magazine, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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