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Commentary > SportsBiz
Maria Mania: no stopping her now
Maria Sharapova has become full-blown media star since her Wimbledon win, despite on-court woes.
August 30, 2004: 8:13 AM EDT
A weekly column by Chris Isidore, CNN/Money senior writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Maria Mania has gripped the world of tennis this summer, just as Wimbledon champ Maria Sharapova has played more like the raw 17-year old she still is.

A flier for a recent tournament, where Sharapova lost her first match.  
A flier for a recent tournament, where Sharapova lost her first match.

Sharapova insists the attention she's had since her upset win in London in July is not the reason for more ordinary play since then. She also says she won't be disappointed if she stumbles again in the U.S. Open, which starts in the nation's media and advertising capital Aug. 30.

"I'm 17 years old and there are many great things ahead," said Sharapova about the Open at a press conference call Thursday. "If I don't win the U.S. Open this year, it's not going to be a disaster in my life."

But many are expecting great things from Sharapova. With the good looks of fellow Russian immigrant Anna Kournikova but a far better on-court record, Sharapova seems poised to attract fans and sponsor dollars for years to come.

Last week, she signed what a source confirmed was a three-year contract in the mid-seven-figure range with cellular phone maker Motorola. She's made appearances on the morning news shows, Leno and Regis. She's been on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and at the center of advertisements about the tournaments she's played in.

She drew more fans to her first match at this week's Pen Pilot Tennis tournament in New Haven, Conn., than saw the finals there last year. But faster than you can say "Kournikova," she lost, defeated by Mashona Washington, ranked 83rd in the world.

The Wimbledon win made Sharapova a major media star.  
The Wimbledon win made Sharapova a major media star.

"Maria losing in the first round is a classic example why no tournament should center all of publicity around one player," said Anne Worcester, tournament director of Pilot Pen Tennis and the former CEO of the WTA tour.

Worcester said despite all the Maria Mania promotions her tournament ran, it had other advertising as well. But she said having Sharapova in the tournament is a major reason the tournament's advance ticket sales were 50 percent ahead of last year's.

"The question is will it now is how it (her early exit) will impact walkup sales," she said.

Officials from the U.S. Open doubt that tournament's ticket sales will be significantly affected by how well Sharapova does. The women's final is likely to sell out no matter who plays.

Sharapova giving a tennis clinic before a recent tournament.  
Sharapova giving a tennis clinic before a recent tournament.

But David Newman managing director of marketing and communications for the US Open said the attention she's received is one of the factor in record advance ticket sales this year. The Open has its own "Maria Mania" ad in the rotation of print advertisements.

Television ratings would definitely be affected by how far she goes. Last year's finals between Belgium stars Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters drew a measly 2.5 rating, less than half the 5.2 rating for the previous year's match between Serena and Venus Williams.

On-court woes won't hit off-court success

Worcester believes that Sharapova can handle the attention and pressures of being a major media star.

"She's as composed and graceful and confident as I've seen in any 17 year old," said Worcester, who has worked with her share of tennis prodigies. "But it's hard to come off that big a win and keep the momentum going. It's so much easier to get there than to maintain that level of success."

Sharapova insists that her on-court struggles since London have nothing to do with the distractions of sudden fame.

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"My first two losses, I lost to someone in the top 10," she said, adding that this is just her second year on tour. "I'm still learning. I'm still not best at doing everything. Unfortunately there's only one winner per tournament."

Moreover, Kournikova's continuing financial success is proof that Sharapova can likely have a strong endorsements career even if she struggles with her game.

The Motorola press release announcing her endorsement describes Sharapova as "Wimbledon Champion and rising pop-culture icon." She can probably hang onto the second part of that even if this year's Wimbledon proves to be her only victory in a major.

Maria Sharapova
Business of Sports
Motorola Incorporated

"A lot of people think she is going to transcend tennis. This is an example," said one person involved in negotiating the Motorola deal. "Only about 10 athletes are really endorsing a lot of products outside of sports. This is just the first sign."

Even if the Sharapova struggles the next three years, the deal is probably a good one for Motorola. If she blossoms into the on court star she hopes to become, it'll be a bargain.

Maria Mania seems unstoppable, even if her game isn't, at least not yet.  Top of page

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