by Ben Best
In 2006 I developed a fascination with Maria Sharapova, the Russian-born, USA-bred tennis player.
I had little interest in competitive athletics of any kind for most of my life, but Maria gave me some understanding of what moves sport-fans. I became so emotionally involved with Maria that I started folllowing tennis and learning about the sport, becoming interested in her competitors and becoming very emotionally involved with the heat of the action in her games. I got a sense of what it is like to get emotionally involved in a team or individual athlete — and the accompanying excitement or disappointment. It is something like the emotional involvement that people get with the characters in fiction — a vicarious experience of life that provides entertainment. There is an empathy with the protagonist and the emotional ups and downs that accompany failures, obstacles and successes.
I don't watch TV, so my access to the world media is mostly through my web browser. To follow developments in the world of women's tennis, I rely on Wikipedia pages dealing with the Women's Tennis Association (WTA). Mainly I follow the WTA Tour Schedule for the current year/season, such as the 2008 WTA Tour. I will select matches of interest and put the Women's Singles page for that match on my Wikipedia Watchlist.
I have enjoyed watching web videos of Maria and I have collected some favorites. Here is a biography made of Maria Sharapova in 2004 not long after she won Wimbleton at the age of 17.
She appeared on the David Letterman show shortly after she won the US Open in the Fall of 2006. Maria fired a few insolent (but genial) unflattering rejoinders at Letterman, which I found charming. My reaction to Maria was similar to that of David Letterman — including his comment about what an outstanding "physical specimen" she is.
Some of Maria's videos have given me amazingly strong emotional reactions. Maria is the highest paid female athlete in the world. By the end of 2006 had made about $10 million from tennis alone and that is apparently peanuts compared to what she has made from modeling and product endorsements.
One of my two favorite Maria Sharapova commercials is a Canon Camera commercial. It is easy to miss the fact that Maria spelled "Maria was here" with her tennis balls lodged in the fence. That picture should have been bigger and bolder. Much of the pleasure I get from this commercial is in seeing Maria be so powerful in hitting a tennis ball. Hitting tennis balls is certainly the origin of her power in the world, but in the literal sense hitting a tennis ball is raw energy. (POWER = ENERGY / TIME) But when she says "Make every shot a power shot" her high-pitched voice undermines the sense of power.
I also very much like Maria's "I Feel Pretty" Nike commercial. "I Feel Pretty" will probably be her theme song for the rest of her life. It was the background music chosen for the David Letterman show appearance mentioned above. Of course, in this video the words "I Feel Pretty" are not used in a flattering way at all. They are used to portray her a vain and shallow. A way of trivializing her. And in the end she shows her power and ability. She ignores all of the distracting and demeaning background noise to "Just do it" — the "rubber hits the road" and the racket hits the tennis ball, with gusto. Triumph over her detractors!
Another of my video favorites is pure Maria Sharapova personality cult. I find it somewhat childish, but endearing.
Although Maria made me a woman's tennis fan, I am less emotionally involved with the individual games now, and there are a number of other players in whom I have taken a fannish interest other than Maria. I prefer the feminine and attractive ones to the more masculine ones. Understandably, such women are fine physical specimens and there is a great deal of pressure (and financial inducement) for them to model (if not disrobe). Maria is by far the most successful of women"s tennis models. Maria has done swimsuit modeling, she has not disrobed. Ana Ivanovic is an attractive champion-level tennis player who has done some disrobed posing. When Ana played against Maria in the finals of the 2007 Australian Open it was described as the "most glamorous Grand Slam in history". Ana's website has an animated slideshow with pounding music that emphasizes both her power and her sexiness. Daniela Hantuchova has a sweet, childlike wholesome appearance, and looks quite attractive when shown with a boyfriend — but she has posed as a temptress.
I get an emotional/aesthetic pleasure from looking at the images of many female tennis players. In that sense it could be called "human art". I enter the names of the players into Google images and the results generally feature the players in suggestive poses that emphasize certain body parts, although I always want to see the faces of the players. Human facial beauty is distinctive from other forms of visual beauty insofar as it is often possible to judge a person's character from their facial appearance. A beautiful face often reflects a beautiful "spirit". But the power possessed by beautiful women can (but needn't) bring out fascistic tendencies. Just because I can enjoy human and other forms of beauty does not mean that attractiveness is the only thing that matters for me in women. I am more a scientist than an artist, and there are many personality qualities I value in women and qualities I value in life other than appearance.
Maria's performance for most of 2007 was a disappointment, most especially the 2007 US Open (after having won the US Open in 2006). As defending champion she received a great deal of attention at the beginning, including attention to her fashionable playing attire. Being defeated in the third round was undoubtedly quite humiliating, and made her look to be a superficial beauty queen rather than a champion — in the sense that was dismissed in the "I Feel Pretty" video. I believe that it is important for Maria to have the world know that she is more than just a pretty face with a good physique.
One of the products that Maria endorses is Gatorade, which she drinks for its water, sugar and electrolytes. Gatorade, like many citrus-flavored soft drinks, can contain brominated vegetable oil as an emulsifier. This form of bromine can accumulate in body fats, have sedative effects and displace iodine in thyroid. I wondered if Maria suffered from such effects.
Maria has her own website, and with her increasing maturity and life-experience I have been finding her too polished, aloof, professional and politically correct. I spoke to a sports journalist who described her as "snotty", but I can forgive her for creating defences against the kind of harassment she would be expected to receive associated with the kind of attention she receives. Nonetheless, I can enjoy the spoofing of her mannerisms that was done by Novak Djokovic (men's winner of the 2008 Australian Open).
Maria has a certain depth of feeling and can be uninibited in expressing herself, even including her famous yelling/grunting. Much more than her competitors she makes many quotable remarks. Her most famous is "I'm not the next anyone, I'm the first Maria Sharapova". But I like the spunkiness she displayed when telling journalists: "I know you are reporters and I know this is your job, but, you know, take your note pads, take your pencils down, take your grunt-o-meters down, the fashion police, put everything away and just watch the match, you know, from just the fans' perspective. I seriously think that the quality of the match today was great." And her comment: "I've been No. 1 in the world. I didn't do it just by waking up and eating ice-cream all day. I've worked for all the things that I have achieved."
In December 2009 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED announced their "40 hottest female athletes of the decade" — of which Maria was number one.
Maria has declined in relative ability and status other players, but she started my interest in women's tennis, so I can remember her with a fondness, after having learned to take greater interest in other players.