|ESPN.com: French Open 2014||[Print without images]|
Maria Sharapova was in Stuttgart, Germany, a few weeks ago when she turned 27. So she went on a birthday outing, complete with desserts and stuffed animals and amusement park rides.
Her trip into the city also happened to promote her upcoming appearance at the WTA tournament there -- whose title sponsor, Porsche, also happens to be one of Sharapova's sponsors. The car company also makes the Porsche 911, which happens to be the shape of the new candy that was launched at the event by Sugarpova, the candy line that Sharapova happens to own.
Other people throw parties, Sharapova throws promos. Had she been booked to play her first-round match during all of this, Sharapova would probably have won that, too, all in between smiling for cameras in the traditional German dress she wore for the occasion.
As it was, Sharapova began her Stuttgart campaign the following week, winning her third title -- and third Porsche -- to continue her unbeaten run at the event. After a slow start, the victory has helped kick-start her season.
Another title followed at Madrid, and she won 12 clay matches in a row before an in-form Ana Ivanovic beat her at Rome the week after. It was the Russian's first defeat on clay to anyone except Serena Williams since 2011, but she still feels ready for the French Open after doing better than anyone on the surface this year.
"It doesn't take anything away from the last two weeks and the way that I've played," Sharapova said after the match against Ivanovic. "So I'm quite excited about the weeks coming up at the Grand Slams."
Until she got back on clay, Sharapova's season had in some ways been more significant off the court than on.
After sitting out most of the second half of 2013 with a shoulder injury, she fell in the fourth round of the Australian Open, then played the indoor WTA event at Paris, which was notable not as much for her semifinal showing as for Sugarpova making its first appearance as a tournament sponsor. Sharapova then switched sporting arenas to serve as one of the faces for the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, her childhood hometown, and carried the torch during the opening ceremonies.
|Victories on clay and expanding off-court activities have been big parts of Maria Sharapova's season.|
Returning from that memorable experience at Indian Wells, she exited early and admitted a few days later that her shoulder was taking some time to regain the strength it needed for long, three-set matches. But almost right away, she won two three-setters in a row while reaching the semifinals at Miami, and left that tournament feeling more encouraged by her play.
The next time she made headlines, however, they were in the business, rather than sports, section. The four-time Grand Slam champion announced that she was becoming a spokesperson and investor in a cosmetics company specializing in skin care, her first time taking an ownership position with a company she endorses.
Her agent, Max Eisenbud, told Bloomberg news service that it would be a more time-consuming commitment than Sharapova had previously been willing to make, but that she now wanted to get more involved with her sponsors.
"The last couple years, as she's started to get near the end of her career, I began to focus on what kinds of relationships could she start now and then be with when her career is over," Eisenbud said.
"This is something I see doing in the future as well," Sharapova said. ''For me, it's not about making revenue today or tomorrow, but I believe it's a company that started on a really good note and it will continue to grow."
But if the newly turned 27-year-old is starting to think post-tennis, she is showing no sign of it on the court. Along with Sochi, Sugarpova and sports cars, there has been plenty of sweat. The new season began with a new coach, Sven Groenefeld, as well as a new physiotherapist and trainer. It doesn't hurt to have a tennis-playing boyfriend in fellow pro Grigor Dimitrov.
Sharapova's transformation on clay, from a heavy-footed novice to 2012 French Open champion and now a consistent force on the surface, is perhaps the best example of her continuing tennis ambition. In some ways, her clay-court success is built on the same approach that has turned Sharapova into a commercial enterprise worth $23 million a year -- developing skills that allow her to use her existing strengths in new situations.
Her baseline hitting and intensity previously made Sharapova competitive on the surface, but improved fitness, smoother movements and more gears on her serve have allowed her to win consistently. She has also benefited from the lack of clay-court specialists at the top of the game the past few years, allowing her and other power players to play their normal games more easily.
"I really trained myself to become better," she said before Rome. "I realized I had no choice but to try to get stronger, prepare better, recover better and work on those things, because they don't just come automatically."
Sharapova's French Open prospects look bright, except for two clouds on the horizon. The first and most obvious is Serena Williams, whom Sharapova has not beaten in 15 matches, including three on red clay. The second is the weather, with the Russian remaining vulnerable on the surface in heavy or unsettled conditions.
She was challenged frequently even during her title runs at Stuttgart and Madrid, but showed her mental toughness in pulling out three-set wins. Once the tournament begins, Sharapova's attention will once again be on tennis.
In the meantime, there is the business side to attend to, starting with a recent photo shoot for Porsche. Other players build toward a Slam. Sharapova builds around it.