Russia might be ready to endorse Sharapova
NEW YORK -- It was no surprise that the U.S. Open crowd cheered on Maria Sharapova on Monday night.
But what was surprising is that many Russians also may have reveled in Sharapova's first-round victory over Elena Danilidou when they woke up Tuesday morning.
From Brooklyn to Beijing, Maria Sharapova doesn't lack fans these days. It's why companies including Canon, Motorola, Nike and Colgate-Palmolive have paid her millions of dollars to endorse their products worldwide.
But the acceptance of the 18-year-old as an icon is only a recent happening in her native land of Russia, where many in the general population seemed to resent her for her American upbringing, her full-time American residence and her unwillingness to play in the Kremlin Cup while she went hopping around to smaller tournaments in Europe and Asia.
"When she became No. 1 [last week], there was a tremendous amount of media coverage on her in Russia and most of it was overwhelmingly positive," said Alexei Tolkachev of Moscow's daily newspaper, Sport Express.
That's a big change from the tone of recent media coverage, even after Sharapova won last year's Wimbledon crown.
"She wasn't granting many interviews, but in Russia, there was resentment because they thought she wasn't interested in talking to the Russian media," Tolkachev said. "Once people started to understand that it wasn't about the country and that she wasn't doing many exclusive interviews, they realized that she wasn't trying to be standoffish and it wasn't as if she didn't care."
When she was 9 years old, Sharapova left Russia with her father without knowing a word of English and with almost no money to their names. They arrived, without invitation, at the famous Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida. Sharapova refined her talents there and turned pro on her 14th birthday.
"The perception was that she was trying to become more American because it was more marketable," Tolkachev said.
Although Tolkachev said Russian companies usually pay their sports stars "peanuts" compared to the endorsement deals obtained from multinational brands, the journalist said that "as a Russian, she can be appealing in countries that don't necessarily embrace American supremacy."
Although Sharapova lives in Florida and has all American friends, her agent Max Eisenbud said there has never been any attempt to "make her American."
"She's Russian because that's who she is," Eisenbud said. "Every time her name appears in the papers or on a draw sheet, there's an 'RUS' next to her name. That will never change."
Eisenbud said that he has been talking with companies based in Russia and his client would love to do a deal that would include a charity component so Sharapova could give back to her homeland.
Russia's embracing of Sharapova isn't all due to her becoming the first Russian woman to attain the world's No. 1 ranking. It also seems like she's trying harder than ever before to make Russia a priority. In May, she finally committed to playing in the Kremlin Cup, the first event she'll play in Russia.
When Sharapova steps on the court for the event that will take place in October, she at least says she cares about how she will be received.
"I've always been thinking about how they think of me in Russia," Sharapova said. "But I don't know what to expect. Hopefully, it's positive."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com.
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