In the global world of sports, few athletes are more popular than Maria Sharapova.
Proof of that supposition can be found in Sharapova’s social media popularity. On Facebook, the 27-year old Russian has 14.1 million followers, which is more than any other female athlete on that platform. And having only joined Twitter in January 2013, Sharapova can boast around 1.2 million followers of her sound-bite sized tweets.
The reasons for Sharapova’s worldwide popularity are multifold. She’s been a highly visible and successful professional tennis player for more than a decade. She’s personable and attractive. On top of that, Sharapova has turned herself into a savvy businesswoman with branding that has included a Nike clothing line, a Sharapova collection for Cole Haan and a Porsche and Avon perfume ambassador. And most prominently, she is the face of Sugarpova candy.
Variety is clearly the spice of life for Sharapova. But it’s important to remember that at her core she is a talented, dedicated, and highly-accomplished professional tennis player. And it’s those latter credentials that have her heading into the 2014 US Open with her sights set on a sixth Grand Slam singles trophy.
It was exactly 10 years ago in July that Sharapova, at only 17, hoisted her first Grand Slam singles trophy at the 2004 Wimbledon Championships. She followed up on that remarkable achievement by winning the 2006 US Open, 2008 Australian Open, and the 2012 and 2014 French Opens. That accounting makes her one of only six women in the Open Era — and 10 women overall — to boast a complete collection of Grand Slam titles.
For Sharapova, there’s a special emphasis on this year’s US Open considering that last year she was outside looking in. A recurrence of a shoulder injury that required surgery in October 2008, and kept her sidelined from 2008 through May of 2009, prevented her from playing at Flushing Meadows in 2013. Though the injury wasn’t as serious as it was in the past, it rendered her unable to play in New York and in fact, allowed her to play just one match after her 2013 Wimbledon disappointingly ended in the second round. From mid-August until 2014, Sharapova was in recuperation mode.
“I feel much more refreshed than I did sitting in this chair a year ago,” said Sharapova, who last year lost in the first round to Sloane Stephens in Cincinnati before closing down her 2013 season. “I feel much more excited to be back and to be playing healthy rather than going on a court and worrying whether I’d be worse or whether [playing ] was the right decision.”
Sharapova this year comes to New York happy with the team she’s assembled to back up her winning strategy — coach Sven Groenefeld joined the lineup in January — and believes she’s ready to put her best foot forward at the Open. Although she would have preferred to have gone beyond the Cincinnati semifinal where she had two match points before being edged out by Anna Ivanovic 6-2, 5-7, 7-5, Sharapova planned to quickly put that behind her.
“I think this year coming into it (the US Open) I should have a free state of mind after not playing it last year, and it mentally having been a very difficult period in my career,” Sharapova said. “So I really have nothing to lose going into it.”
But she definitely has a lot to gain, including the possibility of a sixth Grand Slam title and an overall 33rd career singles trophy. This year, in addition to her triumph at Roland Garros, Sharapova has won two other—at Stuttgart and Madrid. Although clay would never be considered her preferred surface, seven of her last eight titles have come on the dirt.
“I’ve given myself a good understanding of patience,” said Sharapova, explaining why she’s become more formidable on clay later in her career. “I’ve been putting a bit more work ethic into the physical aspect of my game, which wasn’t a strength of mine at the beginning of my career.”
No matter how Sharapova fares at Flushing Meadows, she already knows that her streak of winning at least one title every year since 2003 is safe for another season. But as a former world No. 1, who has already spent 21 non-consecutive weeks at the top of the rankings, Sharapova is approaching the challenge of the 2014 US Open with her usual fierce determination.
“I think at any Grand Slam it’s all about working through the tournament, pacing yourself, finding your rhythm, improving as the tournament goes on,” she said. “It’s about giving yourself the opportunity to keep playing and fighting for your spot out there.”
And for a player of Sharapova’s immense talents, the only acceptable spot is to be standing alone when the tournament ends.