From the archives: We caught up with Maria Sharapova off the courts in Bal Harbour for our May 2014 cover story. Given the choice between globe-trotting and home, Sharapova told us, she would always return to Florida and her home in Bradenton.
By Eric Barton
City & Shore Magazine
This is supposed to be a cocktail reception where everybody gets to talk to tennis star Maria Sharapova. But 10 minutes in, nobody has worked up the courage to approach her.
Sharapova is sitting on the retaining wall that surrounds a fountain at the St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort. Her manager, sitting next to her, is on a mobile phone, so Sharapova just looks out on the sea of reporters. She’s wearing a black dress from Chloé that’s covered in what looks like thousands of pearls. Her stilettos, four inches or so, put her somewhere near 6-foot-6. Her long legs are crossed and her arms splayed out behind her, and she looks entirely comfortable.
But she’s famous, she’s beautiful in that so-natural way, she’s incredibly tall. That imposing combination makes everyone get another drink or reach for an appetizer rather than walk over.
Sharapova is recognized right off even by people who don’t follow professional tennis. Maybe you know the 27-year-old from her 29 tournament victories – four of them Grand Slams. Or more likely you’d recognize her face from a gazillion cover shots or the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue or Olympics commentaries. Strands of blond hair hang loosely just past her shoulders, and it would be a surprise to learn she had any product in it or that she was wearing any makeup.
“Oh, hey,” she says, with a genuinely charming smile, after two journalists finally work up the courage to approach. “I’m Maria.”
One reporter works for a website that interviews celebrities. She sits down next to Sharapova. The reporter, two weeks into the job, confides that this will be her first time on camera. “Oh, you’ll do fine,” the tennis star says, putting her hand on the reporter’s knee, using a reassuring tone that sounds like she’s talking to a college friend.
Sharapova is in South Florida for a Porsche event, so she talks about the launch of a special model with her name on it. Porsche let her drive the sports car, and she couldn’t believe she fit in it comfortably.
“I’m a quite tall girl, and I didn’t even need to move the seat back,” she says of her 911.
She talks about the first time she came to Florida, back when her parents moved from Sochi, Russia, so Sharapova could attend Nick Bollettieri’s tennis academy. She was 7, and her father had just $700. They moved to Bradenton, and that’s where Sharapova has lived since.
This year is Sharapova’s comeback after a shoulder injury forced her to end her 2013 season two months early. The season began well when she reached the semifinals of the Brisbane International in Australia, where she lost to archrival Serena Williams in straight sets. She hasn’t beaten Williams since 2004 and has done so only twice in 18 matches.
It’s always been that way with Sharapova and Williams. Going into the Sony Open in Key Biscayne in March, Sharapova was ranked seventh in the world and looked strong when she met Williams again. Sharapova led 4-1 in the first set and 2-0 in the second, but Serena took both sets.
While she is in South Florida, Sharapova says she doesn’t party. She gets tapas in Miami, maybe, but never hits the clubs. “I haven’t been to South Beach in a long time,” she confides, as if there’s some guilty pleasure in it.
Maybe after the next tournament she can do something crazy. “I was planning a trip with my girlfriends, so maybe I’ll allow myself a little alcohol.”
Sharapova’s circle is small. Just a half dozen girls or so have earned and kept her trust. A couple are friends from their school days in Bradenton, the rest she met through the tennis circuit. She likes it that way in her professional life too. She has had the same agent since she was 11. She has a publicist but no assistants, no entourage to pamper her.
She keeps it simple even when it comes to her beauty routine. Today’s lack of makeup or hair products completes her girl-next-door look. She doesn’t wear makeup on the court either. Sunscreen is pretty much the only thing she never skips.
She speaks like someone who has rehearsed everything yet still addresses questions as if she were thinking about the answers for the first time. She is savvy too, as you might have noticed during her reporting from Sochi during the Winter Olympics. Whenever she was asked about politics, about Vladimir Putin, Sharapova smoothly deflected the question.
“I don’t follow politics, really,” she says in Bal Harbour, when asked about the crisis in Ukraine. She pushes her hair back behind her ear unsuccessfully, the strands falling in her face.
After a few reporters chat her up by the fountain, there’s an official press conference. A PR woman from Porsche asks Sharapova questions about her dress and what she likes about driving. “Acceleration,” Sharapova says. Then she moves over to where chairs have been set up under palm trees for one-on-one interviews. The backdrop includes a break in the dune where everybody can see the first reds and yellows of the sunset reflected in the ocean.
All the interviews she gives are kind of fun, she insists. She likes meeting people. That might sound fake coming from a lot of people – after all, she had seven-minute interview segments set up with a pack of reporters – but there’s seemingly nothing false about the smile she gives when she speaks.
Sharapova talks about what she likes to do for fun. She travels when she’s off and has a thing for Arman Resorts. She has hit a couple in the Orient and was especially fond of Indonesia.
Given the choice between globe-trotting and home, Sharapova would always pick Bradenton. She has a Pomeranian named Dolce who became famous himself after a series of Canon camera commercials a few years back (even though the dog in the ad was a stand-in). An ideal night at home consists of a few friends, the pool, a cocktail and a pizza from a place down the street.
“I just like to hang at home when I have free time,” Sharapova says, trying again to tuck that hair behind her ear. “It’s like a margarita in one hand and the sun and water. I’m a simple girl. That’s enough for me.”
There’s no doubt, though, that she’s an eater, a self-admitted foodie. She likes the finer restaurants but also can’t live without gummy worms, which she prefers squishy, not dried out. She likes candy so much that she started her own line, Sugarpova, with flavors like sour gummies called Flirty and a gum the shape of tennis balls called Sporty.
And then there was the Vanity Fair Oscars after-party, when Sharapova hit the In-N-Out truck at midnight with fashion designer Tom Ford, the two of them devouring burgers.
Her true vice, though, the real way to this girl’s heart, is cupcakes. When she gets the craving there’s no stopping her. That happened in Rome after winning a tournament. The next day, two hours before her flight out, nothing mattered but satisfying her urge, in a city known for gelato and pastries, not cakes baked in cups.
When Sharapova takes a break from playing, she soon gets antsy. A few days without slapping backhands in practice and suddenly all she can think about is the next tournament. She likes “feeling domestic” and just being “a homebody – until I have to go back.”
When she does return to the court, it’s never about a routine. She doesn’t have superstitions like a favorite towel, she doesn’t have to step over the baseline for luck. For her it’s just about the competition, that overwhelming drive to win – first discovered when she saw Martina Navratilova when Sharapova was 6 and attended her hero’s tennis clinic in Moscow.
There are a few distractions Sharapova will allow during a tournament. For instance, she goes nuts over vintage stores. In towns where being recognized might become a problem, she throws on oversized glasses and a sun hat so she can go rifle through second-hand designer labels.
There are museums to visit, too. Like that time before the 2011 U.S. Open in New York. There she was, about to begin competition, but not until she had checked out the Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
She can also lose herself in books, especially mysteries like those of Dan Brown. Her favorite fictional character, though, is Pippi Longstocking. It’s not hard to see why. Pippi Longstocking was an awkward kid with ponytails sticking straight out who was born so strong she could lift a horse above her head. Sharapova was the Russian kid dropped into life on the west coast of Florida, with almost no English, tall and lanky as a teen, and given an extraordinary ability to hit a tennis ball. While Pippi never made it out of her Swedish village, Sharapova earned her first sponsorship at just 8 and turned pro at 14.
Unlike many other tennis players who burned out early and were scarred by the grueling grooming for the pro tour from the time they were toddlers, Sharapova seems, well, normal. She returns home to Bradenton as often as possible to restock on normalcy.
“I think you go back to the places where you grew up when you get older,” she says. “There’s something comforting about those places, because it brings back a memory. It might not be the best pizza you’ve ever had, but you’ve been there a hundred times.”
She does two dozen quick-fire interviews before her handlers pull her away. She makes her way right through the pack of reporters, a good foot taller than many of them, with a casual air of confidence, her back straight, the slow pace parting the crowd.
Just before she’s gone, ducking between two sea grape trees, the tennis princess turns back and gives one of those waves with only her fingertips moving, and smiles. And you know, there really is something simply genuine about that smile.
On the court, Maria Sharapova is known for using power to overwhelm opponents. Watch her ace-producing serve June 23 at Wimbledon.