It's not often that the international paparazzi converge on sleepy coastal Connecticut. But on the stiflingly hot morning of July 6 a black SUV streaking up the Merritt Parkway toward New Haven was trailed by a convoy of stealth photographers. Having somehow folded her impossibly long legs into the middle row of the vehicle, 17-year-old Maria Sharapova, the object of the pursuit, looked back in awe as cars followed her at speeds exceeding 85 mph.
A few months earlier Sharapova had agreed to make an appearance in New Haven to publicize the WTA's Pilot Pen tournament. She would bat some balls around with local "celebrities" (a hit-and-giggle session, to use the tennis locution), pose with the sponsors and make a few remarks to assembled kids. In exchange she would get a small stipend and gratis hotel accommodations when she plays in the tournament, which will be held Aug. 20-28. It's a typical arrangement between players and tournament promoters to skirt the WTA's ban on appearance fees. Problem was, 5 Sharapova had been merely an enticing tennis prospect when she committed to the appearance. Her ranking was steadily gaining altitude, but she was still on the fringes of the top 20. Beyond the standard racket and shoe deals, her lone endorsement contract was with a game called Speedminton, a souped-up version of badminton. Now here she was, 72 hours removed from her stunning victory at Wimbledon, one of the youngest Grand Slam champions in tennis history.
Ebullient, bilingual and hyperconfident—not to mention tall, blonde and beautiful—Sharapova had suddenly become, as Martina Navratilova put it, "the best thing that could have happened" to women's tennis. And on this day she had the entourage to prove it, flanked as she was by her mother, her agent, the fawning New Haven tournament director, the event's media handler, two WTA officials, a wardrobe consultant and a magazine writer. Plus the paparazzi.
As the SUV whipped up the parkway, past plush golf courses and million-dollar suburban McMansions, Sharapova monitored the progress of her pursuers. "They're gaining on us!" she shrieked somewhere near Greenwich. With that, the tournament promoter pulled out a cellphone and called to arrange for a police escort once they arrived in New Haven. "I'm with Maria," the promoter explained. "Yes, that Maria."
Sharapova's charm offensive at Wimbledon had included her revelation that she spent the rain delays taking tests and writing sociology essays for her online high school. But her real summer education came after she won the singles tide. Once she had finished off Serena Williams with a performance that was equal parts precocity and ferocity, Sharapova began a crash course on the inner workings of the star-making machine. "It's been," she said, "totally crazy."
The Sharapova backstory is familiar by now. Born in Siberia, she was seven when she and her father, Yuri, relocated to Florida after it became clear that Maria had a preternatural talent for hitting a tennis ball over the net. Two years later she was given a full scholarship to the IMG-Bollettieri Tennis Academy. It was largely on IMG's dime that she harvested her talent and traveled to junior events the world over. Now it's time for Sharapova's benefactors to recoup their investment.
So on the morning of July 6 Sharapova had been in New York City to appear on two TV shows. She arrived at the Today studio in Rockefeller Center at 7 o'clock resplendent in a pink satin jacket. ("It's Marc Jacobs, my favorite designer," she volunteered.) In the green room she nodded vacantly as the New Haven promoter importuned her to mention the tournament's sponsor, Pilot Pen, on the air. About to be interviewed live on national television, Sharapova was completely relaxed. "We've been preparing for this for years," said her IMG agent, Max Eisenbud, 32. "We did Craig Kilborn's show last year, and the thinking was that if you mess up on that, who knows about it?"
When it was time to take center stage, Sharapova was brilliant. Radiating poise, striking a perfect balance between adult polish and teenage winsomeness, she batted back questions as if they were opponents' weak second serves. When host Matt Lauer obligatorily mentioned Anna Kournikova—that other blonde Russian tennis vamp—Sharapova resisted rolling her eyes and said, "I respect Anna a lot, and she's done a lot for the game." Near the end of the interview, Sharapova cut Lauer off and blurted, "I'm doing a street clinic for Pilot Pen today. And I'm going to be doing that this afternoon, so I'm very excited." In the green room the promoter erupted with glee and gave Sharapova's mother, Yelena, a high five.
Maria hadn't left the stage, and already Eisenbud's cellphone was chirping. Producers from other shows, having seen how Sharapova handled herself on Today, wanted in. ("They probably saw her name and figured she didn't speak English," Eisenbud surmised.) Conan O'Brien, Total Request Live, CBS's Early Show, Access Hollywood, Entertainment Tonight, Fox, CNN, ESPN's Cold Pizza—all came in search of Maria. To maximize his client's exposure, Eisenbud was armed with the shows' ratings and demographics, and he deftly played the callers against one another, stringing along a rep from The Early Show, for instance, in hopes of booking his client on ABC's higher-rated Good Morning America. A representative called from John McEnroe's talk show on CNBC, set to debut the next day. Told of the invitation, Sharapova crinkled her nose. "He's disrespected my game," she said, referring to McEnroe's on-air tennis commentary.
"Yeah, but if you help him out and do his show, he'll be good to you at the [ U.S.] Open," said Eisenbud, no doubt aware that McEnroe too is a client of the IMG tennis division. The discussion ended abruptly as Eisenbud fielded another call, this time from a PEOPLE magazine editor requesting an interview. "If you can guarantee me in writing that you'll put Maria on the cover," said Eisenbud, "we'll do it." (No guarantee was forthcoming.)