Looks are everything

Originally Published: August 11, 2004
By Brian Triplett | ESPN.com

Jetlagged from a trip across the Atlantic, already weary from the sudden surge of attention, Maria Sharapova slouched in the chair, rested her arms on her crossed legs and playfully rolled her eyes at the thought of what lies ahead.

Dozens of fans clad with "Maria Mania" buttons and the curious passers-by crowded around the makeshift tennis court in downtown New Haven, Conn., an event to promote an upcoming tournament, as questions about Sharapova's life off the court suddenly became important in the wake of her Wimbledon title.

Maria Sharapova
While endorsers want Sharapova for her game and her good looks, she's firmly focused on her game.
She's young. She's blonde. She's tan. She's the new Russian starlet who just took the tennis world -- no, the world -- by storm.

Her life is at the precipice of change.

"It is, unfortunately, yes," she said.

A soft, monotone voice and a forced giggle may be signs of her hesitancy to enter this new life of super stardom, as much as it is reflective of the inexperience that is inherent with being a 17-year-old tennis prodigy.

What lies on the road ahead for Sharapova is uncertain, but not unpredictable. An hour's drive south on I-95 to Mamaroneck, N.Y., in fact, could be a preview of what's to come. It's where the original Russian beauty and professional attention-drawer, to whom so many compare Sharapova, works the competition from side to side on the court and the fans into a frenzy in the stands during the first stop of her four-event World Tennis Team season.

A comparison of the pair both on and off the court is beginning to reveal sharp contrasts. Indeed, as tennis continues to define Sharapova's developing image, the sport is becoming less of an active ingredient in Anna Kournikova's celebrity. With a Grand Slam singles title now on her résumé, Sharapova is a star in the making, the flavor of the moment. Kournikova is struggling to recover from a back injury that is threatening to derail a tennis career that never has been quite on the right track, while also trying to give the masses a taste of what they've come to crave.

If Anna is no help at teaching Maria about game, she can certainly teach her about fame.

Anna Mania
It's Kournikova's second season with the Kansas City Explorers, one of 10 teams on the World Team Tennis circuit, but the novelty of her appearance, whether it's a Grand Slam event or a minor league-type atmosphere, hasn't worn off.

Anna Kournikova
Anna Kournikova says she can walk away from tennis whenever she wants. So far, though, she hasn't walked away from the endorsement money.
"I've never seen any amount of frenzy as in the media interest and excitement that she brings to tennis," said Jeff Launius, in his third year as the Explorers' general manager. "She's certainly put our franchise on the map in my opinion, last year and this year."

Make no mistake, though, this is not a WTA event.

During gatherings with local media, fans often infiltrate news conferences to interject questions that invariably veer off topic. A local police officer thanks Kournikova for coming to town. Another man presents her with a T-shirt. The media-maven, though, doesn't miss a beat.

Said one man, three questions into her give and take: "How would a big fan like me go about getting his picture taken with you?"

"Ask me," Kournikova said politely.

Her popularity is hardly fading. There are close to 280,000 registered members -- and counting -- of her Web site from nearly 100 countries. "Kournikova" long has ranked among the most searched words on the Internet.

Whether it's the throng of non-paying spectators who crane for an obscured view from behind the fence that rings the facility in Mamaroneck, or a smooth-talker who pulls up in a Prowler with the top down and announces "I'm here to see Anna" to all within earshot as they make their way into the arena in Avon, Conn., Kournikova remains an attraction, her magnetism still unparalleled.

"She obviously has the sex appeal," a 19-year-old male employee says with a smile as Kournikova warms up on the court before a match. "That's definitely why there's all guys standing around watching her now."

Her game brings her here. Her looks bring the crowd.

In a typical tennis match, fans' heads turn on a swivel as they watch the ball bounce from one end of the court to the other. But with Anna involved, it's not a typical match. The neck muscles take a break as tennis becomes an afterthought.

During a match, a fan grabs an errant ball hit into the stands. He turns to celebrate his prize with his friends, but hands the ball over seconds later when Kournikova calls for its return.

"Why did you give that ball back?" a friend scolds him.

"Because she told me to," the man simply replies, an answer suitable enough for his friend.

Anna Kournikova
Hoping to keep her tennis skills sharp, Anna spent part of her summer playing on the World Team Tennis circuit.
"As a promoter, we don't care what she's won because she does a great job of getting media, fans and selling tickets," said Illana Kloss, the chief executive of World Team Tennis. "And those are the things that really matter."

The sound of camera shutters rapidly opening and closing creates a white noise whenever she is on the court. The images of the woman who won a pair of Grand Slam doubles titles but never lived up to others' expectations, however, aren't all snapshots of moments capturing her athletic ability.

One fan steadies his camera phone and clicks a picture just as Kournikova bends over to adjust her shoe. "Yes!" he says as his girlfriend laughs in amusement.

Afterward, a long, winding line of children await their turn to collect her autograph, the occasional adult trying hard to camouflage himself in the mix. While the other players head to the locker room, Kournikova pulls up a chair and scribbles something resembling her name until everyone is satisfied.

The attention, she says, has not backed off despite her absence from the WTA Tour for more than a year now.

"It's not something that bothers me or makes me happy," she said. "I just kind of try to live my life."

A life that comes with strings attached.

A fight for the spotlight
Kournikova no longer needs tennis. And tennis no longer needs her.

"I'll always play tennis only because I love it," she said. "I'll never play just because I have to. I don't have to do anything, really. I just do whatever I love."

The tennis world has moved on and discovered its new darling in Sharapova. But the taller, more accomplished newcomer, who also competes in World Team Tennis for the Newport Beach Breakers, seems to be missing something that would complete the package.

"I've been involved with World Team Tennis for almost 20 years and I've never seen fans affected by any player as much as Anna Kournikova," Kloss said. "With Sharapova coming along, she has the ability to, I think, attract some of those people. But Kournikova has that X-factor that I don't think Sharapova has."

Sharapova, apparently, doesn't want it.

Sharapova's agent, Max Eisenbud, said tennis will always remain first on the priority list. "She's interested in becoming No. 1, so you're not going to see her doing 20 or 30 different deals," he said.

Still, she already has endorsement deals with Nike and Prince, and others could find themselves in the works before she takes the court at the U.S. Open later this month.

"She definitely attracts fans, and I think Maria should have a very bright future," said Ben Sturner of Bennett Global, a sports and entertainment marketing agency. "I think the sky's the limit for Maria in terms of marketing ability and tennis ability."

Kournikova, of course, has struck it rich off the court. Even if her back injury leads to an early retirement, marketing experts say they believe that her revenue streams won't dry up completely.

Kevin Wulff, director of sports marketing for Adidas America, refused to speculate about Kournikova's future with his company, but said it is not uncommon for high-profile athletes to continue a lucrative endorsement career after their playing days are over. Although only a select few can continue to hold on to their celebrity power when it comes to marketing after retirement, Michael Jordan and George Foreman have shown that it is possible.

"Even when she has not been playing, she still has been maintaining a place in the spotlight and still getting offers," said Patrick McGee, a vice president with Octagon, the agency that represents Kournikova.

The older Russian beauty doesn't seem to feel threatened in any way that Sharapova will steal her glory. "I think it's very exciting for the game," Kournikova says with a smile.

The younger Russian star, however, is sick of hearing Kournikova's name. "After winning Wimbledon, I don't want to answer those questions anymore," Sharapova said.

But no matter how hard people try to keep the comparisons to a minimum, sometimes they are inevitable.

When it was announced that Sharapova was to compete in the China Open this September, according to a newspaper in China, tournament officials proudly announced her arrival by hanging up a poster of Kournikova.

It may never end.

Brian Triplett can be reached at Brian.A.Triplett-ND@espn3.com

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