Thoughts of Maria Sharapova inspire 14-year-old Alina Mikheyeva when she's struggling on the tennis court. After all, Alina's mother sold her car, quit her job and rented out her apartment to try to make her daughter's dream of tennis stardom come true.Meanwhile, enjoying the trappings of success and the opportunities it brings, Maria Sharapova and Nike are at it again, this time unveiling her latest fashion for her return to the U.S. Open next week. These photos are from a photo session and press conference unveiling her red Swarovski crystal encrusted tennis dress. Most notably, the dress was manufactured of a high-tech breathable fabric with no-seam technology.
The lure of fame and fortune has filled Moscow's tennis courts with girls hoping to play at Grand Slam tournaments such as the U.S. Open, which begins on Monday. Four of the top 10 women's players this year are Russian.
"I'm doing everything for that, we are doing it together with my mom," Alina said after practice at a tennis center in a seedy area in northeast Moscow.
Many of the most driven would-be tennis stars in Russia are from underprivileged families who see tennis as one of the few honest ways to become rich in a country where millions slid into poverty after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. "Those who endure all the difficulties, they will succeed," said Alina's mother, Margarita, who quit a relatively well-paid job as personal assistant to work in the tennis center's snack bar to be near her daughter.
The Russian inroads on professional tennis, especially the women's game, began several years ago. Sharapova leads the pack at No. 2, followed by Svetlana Kuznetsova (No. 4), Anna Chakvetadze (No. 6) and Nadia Petrova (No. 8). Sharapova, who has lived in the United States since age 7, has won 16 titles and US$9 million in prize money since turning pro in 2001.
"Everyone is driven by money, by the success of (Anna) Kournikova and Sharapova," said Larisa Gavrilenko, the mother of another aspiring young player.
"Prize money in tennis is incomparably higher than in other sports," Gavrilenko said while watching her daughter, Anya Davydova, 11, play in a tournament at the Cherkizovka tennis center.
But to have a shot at making it into the professional ranks requires a major investment. Players pay US$3,000 to US$4,000 per month for an individual coach, and fees for court time and hitting partners can easily run an additional $2,000, said youth coach Viktor Yanchuk.
Outdoor courts cost $12-$24 per hour, but during Russia's long winter the price of an indoor court goes up to $80. "The demand is much higher than supply, so they charge as much as they can," Yanchuk said.
His top student, 15-year-old Yana Buchina, moved to Moscow with her mother two years ago from Samara. Previously, she would make the 650-mile (1,000-kilometer) trip every three or four months to train with Yanchuk for a week or two, and then go home with videotapes and instructions.
She has no sponsor and practiced all summer on inexpensive concrete courts, her coach said.
Parents without the money to pay for full-time coaches and other specialists often take on much of the coaching duties themselves. Alina is taught one hour a day by one of Moscow's veteran coaches. But her mother is her fitness instructor - she signed Alina up for sessions with a well-known fitness trainer and now uses the notes taken during the sessions.
Alina said her role model is top-ranked Justine Henin of Belgium. But when she's on the court, she thinks of Sharapova "because she is like a beast when she plays a match."
Youngsters who enter the top ranks usually do so in their late teens. Sharapova, the defending U.S. Open champion, was 17 when she won Wimbledon in 2004.
Alina, ranked 26th among Russian girls under 14, has won three tournaments this year. But if she is to have any chance once she moves into an older age group, she must have an opportunity to compete in tournaments abroad.
The tennis center, which is run by the State Physical Education Institute, shares a parking lot with the sprawling Cherkizovsky market, where migrants from Russia's North Caucasus and former Soviet republics in Central Asia and traders from China sell cheap clothing, household goods and food.
It is a magnet for pickpockets and other criminals. A year ago, a bomb explosion killed 10 people and injured more than 50.
Mikheyeva, 40, said if she could find the money she would be happy to send her daughter to a tennis school in the West. She said she was in talks with a potential sponsor. "Here, everything is on my shoulders," she said.
Obviously, it is styled to fit.
Further, it seems the crystal pattern was inspired by the NYC skyline. From the Sports Illustrated article:
When Sharapova defends her U.S. Open title next week, she'll be wearing tennis dresses decorated with graphic interpretations of the cityscape on the chest.
The designs, created in collaboration with Nike senior designer Colleen Sandieson, were unveiled Wednesday evening on a rooftop at Rockefeller Center.
"It's always important to feel comfortable in what you're wearing when you're playing, but in tennis, you can do so many things with your wardrobe," Sharapova said wearing the flame-red dress in a flared shift silhouette that she'll wear at night.
The color is in honor of the Big Apple. "I've worn a red top before but never a red dress, but there is no better place to do it than New York," she told the Associated Press.
Performance is always the priority, Sandieson said, but she and Sharapova strive for designs that marry function with fashion.
"She has a fantastic game and I have a lot of respect for that but she has a great eye for detail," Sandieson said. "She's got a style that's very natural to her, and she also knows what she likes and doesn't like."
Sharapova, 20, has become a player in the fashion world and has sponsorship deals with Parlux Fragrances, handbag company Samantha Thavasa and watchmaker Tag Heuer in addition to Nike. "She wears clothes that a lot of other women would like to own and look good in," said Susan Kaufman, editor of People StyleWatch.
Sharapova noted that the U.S. Open, which runs Aug. 27-Sept. 8, coincides with New York Fashion Week and she tries to make it to at least one show. For the past two years, it's been Marc Jacobs but she also hopes to make it to Michael Kors, Peter Som and Vera Wang this year.
Once her tennis career is over, she said, fashion is something she'd like to further explore.
Of course, the life of a star tennis player isn't all fashion, glamor and fame. And despite having lived in the U.S. for so long, Maria has not forgotten her humble Russian roots. She works as a United Nations goodwill ambassador and was appointed an ambassador for the U.N. Development Program. She has given thousands to the victims of Chernobyl and Beslan. She also plans a return to Chernobyl for July 2008 after Wimbledon. Regarding her trip and role as a UN goodwill ambassador:
"They wanted me to work with them because they felt like people in those areas didn't really feel like they had a chance to survive," Sharapova said. "They wanted me to help raise the awareness that by building schools, hospitals, cleaning the air that there is pride and a side they can head towards instead of thinking all those negative things."
Her trip to Chernobyl will last just a few days.
"Unfortunately, I have about 28 days a year for the work that I do and for the sponsors, for the photo shoots and the visits," she said. "Time is very, very limited."
Sharapova won her first title of the season a week ago near San Diego. During the tournament, she met with a group of Russian children visiting the United States.
Their trip was sponsored by The Children of Chernobyl, a nonprofit group that brings healthy children from Belarus between ages 8 and 12 to America for a six-to-eight week visit. They are placed with host families and the children receive free medical, dental and eye care treatment.
Upon meeting Sharapova, some of the families asked what advice she could give the children. "It's tough because most of them don't have any parents, and what's really helped me in my life was having my mom and dad be so supportive and around me," she said.
Despite her Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles and No. 2 world ranking, Sharapova didn't expect the children to know who she was.
"They had all these questions lined up for me. The kids are pretty young and the questions they were asking me were so mature and so beyond their years," she said. "This young kid asked me how I wanted to raise my children. I was like, 'Geez, you're a kid yourself.' It was very strange."
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