Will she be the only woman tennis player who can cash in on her looks and celebrity and still win tournaments, as Sports Illustrated's S.L. Price sees it? Or, as Martina Navratilova wrote in last week's Guardian, is the Russian femme fatale killing only her game, like Venus and Serena Williams did before her, as she becomes more and more distracted by off-court activities?
The defending Wimbledon champ's two-set loss to Venus Williams on Centre Court today and her inability to make a final in any of the season's three majors don't necessarily speak to the distractions that now make Sharapova the richest female athlete. (In tennis, she's second only to Andre Agassi in earned endorsements this year, having pulled in $22.5 million.) What these speak to is the state of women's tennis -- namely, that while the Siberian was making her impressive run last season that culminated in her win over Serena Williams at Wimbledon, the sports' top players were mostly out nursing injuries and illness. Further, in Sharapova, women's tennis got a tall, blond dose of what made the Spaniard Rafael Nadal so fab at Roland Garros this year -- the Shock and Awe Method of winning that comes from being a complete unknown. This season players have had to work hard to beat Sharapova, no doubt -- but they've now had some experience in playing her, thus are getting better at it.
Also, though commentators hype her icy stare and cold-bloodedness on the court, Sharapova clearly needs work playing under pressure. In the Australian Open semis, she held three match points against Serena Williams, but couldn't put it away, losing in three sets to the eventual champion. Admittedly, the Williams have put together some inspired wins against her, but Sharapova looked like she would burst out crying in her last games against Venus on Thursday.
In fact, her play this entire season has been streaky -- a testament to the real quality of her tennis. In February, she knocked off world No. 1 Lindsay Davenport in Tokyo, then turned around just weeks later to fall 6-0, 6-0 to the American at Indian Wells. This year on grass, her professed favorite surface, she won the Wimbledon tune-up at Birmingham -- by taking three sets to beat No. 19-ranked Jelena Jankovic. Also, she's lost big matches to two returning top-ranked players, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne. The shock-and-awe aspect of her game is now over.
Do these setbacks have anything to do with Sharapova's duel life as athlete-businesswoman? On that question, the jury is still out. For sure she's no Anna Kournikova, who never won a major singles title and whose considerable talent atrophied as her attention turned to what she valued more -- following where her looks led her. Also, while this Russian may have earned herself endorsement deals to fill a Florida villa, she's not at the same time pursuing what Richard Williams calls his daughters' "other interests," such as interior design, fashion design and a really lamentable acting career.
Fame has charged Sharapova as quickly and bullishly as it did the Williams sisters, but maybe it hasn't had time enough to snuff out her desire to excel on the court the way it seems to have iced the ambitions of Venus and Serena, who are now, respectively, 25 and 23. There's still time, though, if that's the direction she chooses.
For my part, I hope she hangs in there. In her commentary, Martina Navratilova takes for granted what women's tennis fans are really hankering for -- a dominant player to come along who will commit to the sport in the same way the 49-year-old Czech native once did. Sharapova may or may not have the goods for such an undertaking. And I'm still holding out hope that the Williams sisters will so oblige us, but tennis fans may have to resign ourselves to finding a different Chrissy for this perhaps next Martina elsewhere. As Navratilova seemed to imply, we're all impatient, waiting for the dust to settle.