In this edition of the Fan Club, I talk with Rob H. from Washington, D.C., about the appeal of Maria Sharapova, perhaps the most famous under-appreciated player in tennis history.
I know you're a real fan, because you told me you thought of driving up from D.C. to meet Maria at her Sugarpova launch in New York. That’s pretty dedicated in my book. I see Gawker has ripped her new line of candy, but I have to say I like the name. I kind of wish she had called herself Maria Sugarpova from the beginning.
Maria is a curious case to me when it comes to fans and fan love. She's always had plenty of sponsorships, and been as high profile as any tennis player, but I used to wonder how many fans of the sport really liked her, or liked to watch her play. I'm still not sure, but the Internet has revealed to me a more passionate following than I would have expected. Have you always been a fan? Do you remember when you first saw her play?
The crucial factor for many, of course, is The Shriek. I do wish she would stop, but I can deal with it after a few minutes of adjustment. There's even something perversely admirable about the way she ignores everyone’s opinion about it and just keeps at it. Otherwise, I do count myself as a fan, and my respect for her has grown over the years as she has persisted, without needing the fame or the money, in her quest to return to the top of the sport.
From the start, though, she was always a striking player. I first saw her play in the 2002 Wimbledon junior girls final, which she lost to Vera Dushevina. I left the snoozer Hewitt-Nalbandian men’s final to catch a few games of this girl we had heard so much about at Bollettieri's. In those days, she didn't shriek as often as she hummed when she hit the ball. It was a long, vicious hum, and I laughed in disbelief when I first heard it—I really did think, “Is this a joke? Does she do that on every shot?” Yes, she did. And she was no joke.
Overall, seeing Maria then was similar to seeing Rafa when he was a teenager: You knew they were going to be forces to be reckoned with.
On one hand, Sugarpova is kind of an absurd concept. On the other, it’s no more absurd than athletes being used in McDonald’s ads. The candy business seems to make Maria happy, so I just view it as good practice for her for after retirement when she has to take the initiative in building her brand.
I’m actually close in age to Maria, so I definitely wasn’t aware of her as early as you were. I don’t remember watching much tennis when I was young other than the occasional Grand Slam finals that would be on network TV. That changed in 2003 when I was in high school and, having some free time in the summer, watched Federer win Wimbledon. I was an instant fan and when the next summer rolled around, tuned in to see it happen again. So, the first time I saw Maria play was an early round of Wimbledon 2004. Like Federer, I became a fan right away, even if the reasons I appreciate their games couldn’t be more different. My new fandom paid off right away at that tournament, obviously, and I have been cheering for her ever since. Because of those two players, I am a knowledgeable tennis fan that can have these conversations.
I think you’re right on the money when it comes to the strange phenomenon of Maria's fans. I would have assumed, watching her on TV in 2004, that there were millions of people around the world that were also in awe of the teenager hitting absolute bombs for winners from every part of Centre Court. It’s insane how accurate her ground strokes are, given the small amount of margin she hits them with, and given the pace. But, like you know, that doesn’t translate into “true” fans of the sport liking her game for some reason.
So you’ve got this player who instantly becomes a mega-celebrity (as far as female athletes go, anyway) with tons of endorsements, but no real identifiable fan base. On the other hand, she has more Facebook fans than any other female tennis player. So it’s probably not a bad guess that it's mostly “casual” fans that make up her fan base. But you’re also right that there appears to be some seriously dedicated fans out there, if comments on Internet websites are any indication.
I think the passionate part of the fan base has grown since the shoulder surgery in 2008. The comments on this website reflect that there are still people who dislike her because they never liked her image or personality back from 2004-2008. She is easily the most openly derided player on TENNIS.com if you only look at comments that were made due to disliking the player (as opposed to comments that were made due to LIKING a player's rival—basically, if you discount Nadal-Federer wars, she’s the most criticized).
But in the last four years, the number of people defending her has really grown, and even some of us who were here all along have started gaining new respect for her. Seems pretty similar to Hillary Clinton to me—as First Lady and N.Y. senator, people saw her as a cold, calculated politician. 2008 comes around, and she’s locked in a primary battle with Barack Obama, experiences some adversity, and she starts to get an image as a fighter and resilient competitor. The process also humanizes her. Ice Queen becomes the underdog, underdog finds success again, and a person has to seriously have a grudge against the underdog to dislike her at this point. Same thing happened for Maria after the bad losses post-surgery.
As far as grunting goes, I wish she would stop just so that people would stop hating her for it. But it’s obviously not going to happen. It doesn't bother me, personally, and I actually find it endearing at this point for the same reason you stated—because she ignores the constant talk about it and makes sure the focus is on her tennis and competitive spirit.