Maria Sharapova holds court

Maria Sharapova has been listed by Forbes magazine as the highest-paid female tennis player for the past 11 years.
Maria Sharapova has been listed by Forbes magazine as the highest-paid female tennis player for the past 11 years. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

The Russian tennis player, ranked third in the world, talks to Life about the sport and her candy company

Being a smart leader means overruling yourself. Maria Sharapova picked this up from Sugarpova, the candy company that the tennis player set up in 2012.

The 28-year-old, ranked third in the world by the Women's Tennis Association (WTA), takes part in tasting panels, evaluating new flavours.

"I'm pretty involved. When we were doing gummies, from the beginning, I never liked the banana," she tells Life. Bananas are a staple of her diet as an athlete, but she is not a fan of them, even less so as a candy flavour.

"But I give in to the team. We work together. We had ballots and I was one of the few who didn't like it. Well, I have to be smart here," she says.

She is glad the majority opinion at Sugarpova prevailed. Not only has she come round to enjoying the flavour a little more, that vote led to one of the brand's most popular mixes, the Sassy Sour (lemon, orange, apple, watermelon, strawberry and, yes, banana).

At the Mandarin Oriental hotel on Thursday, her face is scrubbed clean and she is in black gym pants and a grey T-shirt from Nike, a brand she has represented for years. It is a few days before her matches in the WTA finals held here and she is busy training and doing media work for brands.

It was Porsche and Tag Heuer in the days before. Now, it is the turn of Evian water, the host of this interview.

Sharapova believes in long-term relationships with brands and she wants the ties to endure post-tennis. For the past 11 years, she has been listed by Forbes magazine as the highest-paid female tennis player. This year, her earnings are estimated at US$29 million (S$40 million) in prizes and sponsorships.

At age 21, she had an insight into her long-term goals, when injuries to her shoulder took her out of the game for 10 months. During her recovery, she plunged into brand work for sponsors.

"It was important that while I was away from the game that I could contribute. When I finish my career, I will have more opportunities to do that," she says.

Her family moved from Russia to the United States when she was a child so she could attend tennis academies. There, she was surrounded by older students and instructors.

She had to overcome inhibitions to be effective in the food business, she says.

"I'm still shy, but growing up, I was very shy. I was always around adults most of my life. I felt shy asking questions. But as I grew up, I found out that that was the best way to learn," she says.

She had a lot of questions when she started the multinational company. Food regulations are an example.

"Okay, so this country doesn't do beef gelatine or that country requires specific food labels that list ingredients. Finding out what works in one market and what doesn't, that's all a learning process," she says.

When she was in Singapore last year, her Instagram posts featured Singapore bridges such as The Helix Bridge in the Marina Bay area. (There are no pictures of food, although she calls herself a foodie and enjoys spice. She had a good prawn curry at the Jim Thompson Thai restaurant the previous day).

"You won't even know I'm a tennis player from looking at my Instagram pictures," she says. With her more than 850,000 Instagram followers, she shares pictures of herself posing in scenic places or in fashion photoshoots. But there are also images of chairs, walls, doors, columns and bridges.

'It's a creative platform for me. I express art and architecture I like. If I wasn't playing tennis, I would have liked to study architecture," she says.

She met her childhood idol, architect Frank Gehry, a few years ago at a jewellery event and remembers being "blown away" by a simple demonstration of his in which he crumpled a sheet of paper and "found a line running through it and was telling me what he saw and what he was inspired by".

She chuckles when she recalls how the designer, famed for the swoopy shapes of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, noted that the heart shapes of the jewellery looked like women's bottoms.

She is active on Twitter (1.8 million followers) and Facebook, although with only two or three posts a week, she is far from prolific.

That might be because she does it all herself. She likes the personal touch. She has fans who "wake up at two in the morning to watch me play", she says.

"Fans look up to me and think I am untouchable and special. It's flattering, but I'm a normal human being. I can do great things, but I also make mistakes in life," she says.

When she has down time, she watches comedies (ones with Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson and Vince Vaughn hold special place).

Having broken off with tennis player Grigor Dimitrov earlier this year, she is now single.

Does she think that the perception of her as a woman who moves in rarefied circles puts men off? She says she can see how men might find her intimidating.

"I don't party or go out a lot. I have my family, a small group of friends who I am close to and I spend time with them. But we're all humans."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2015, with the headline 'Maria Sharapova holds court'. Print Edition | Subscribe