Pros compete for prize money, get free racquets, and practice four to a court in isolation. Stars get appearance money, big-time endorsements, and attract crowds and autograph seekers to their practice sessions.
Maria Sharapova is a star. After practicing Sunday afternoon for 45 minutes in the Stadium Court and chatting with fans and sponsors, she'll play her first match Monday night at The Racquet Club in the Cellular South Cup.
She's heavily favored to win it, but I wouldn't bet my Canon camera on it until we see if she has cured the problems with her serve that resulted in 21 double faults at the 2009 U.S. Open. The woman who beat her in New York, Melanie Oudin, is also in the Memphis field.
Sharapova looks thinner than she does on television. She's 6'-2", but her shoulders and upper body looked more runway model than former world Number One tennis player as she smacked ground strokes in practice Sunday, wearing black shorts and a tight white t-shirt. And, no, she does not grunt in practice.
After hitting with her trainer, she did a quick courtside interview and then signed autographs for about 20 fans in the hallway between the bleachers. "She won't sign unless you stay in a straight line," warned a security guard. She didn't seem to mind when the ranks broke and she was presented with giant tennis balls by fans, several of whom were twice her age (22). After a shower and a change of clothes, she came upstairs to a Cellular South reception. Several other women players were holding court before the cameras before she arrived, but after that it was all Maria.
"Think of a question no one has asked me before," she suggested, but fans honed in on her boyfriend Sasha Vujacic, a pro basketball player with the Los Angeles Lakers. Hey, it was Valentine's Day.
Sharapova, who became the first Russian woman to be ranked number one in the world in tennis in 2005, has lived in the United States since she was six years old. She started playing pro events regularly in 2002 and won Wimbledon in 2004 when she was 17 years old. After that it was Maria Inc., with sponsorship deals with Pepsi, Honda, Canon, Motorola, Gatorade, Cole Haan, Tiffany, and Sega among others. She also has her own line of handbags and jewelry, as befits one of People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People (2005).
We will see this year if her heart is still in tennis. She conceded Sunday that her training regimen is "a grind." In January she lost in the first round of the Australian Open. If her shoulder, her competitive fire, and her confidence are back, she should win this tournament. If not, you might want to come out to see her tonight or before this weekend.