She was loud, she was long-legged — and she hated losing.
Maria Sharapova arrived at Wimbledon in 2003 for her first tilt at the famed grass tournament and made noise everywhere.
From the front pages of the British tabloids that branded her first round match against American Ashley Harkleroad the “Battle of the Babes”, to the court itself where her grunting was such a focus her opponent shouted sarcastically “louder! to laughter from the crowd.
But there was nothing funny for Harkleford, who was somewhat of a headline-grabber herself at that point having been dubbed the Britney Spears of tennis and “Kourna-Copy”, when she was swept aside 6-2 6-1.
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Despite being two years younger Sharapova showed the ruthlessness and heavy-hitting game that would net her the world number one ranking and five grand slams before her retirement on Thursday.
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Harkleford was just another counterfeit copy of the original tennis bombshell Anna Kournikova. She never made it further than the third round of a slam and a few years later was posing for Playboy magazine (and still resharing the photos on Instagram as recently as last year).
Sharapova, a wildcard, bettered that at her first crack at the All England Club, going on to defeat 11th seed Jelena Dokic before falling in three tough sets to Svetlana Kuznetsova in the fourth round.
But if the Russian-born beauty thought her press conference following the match against Harkleford would focus largely on her play, she was mistaken.
After NINE questions about her grunting came some inquiries about her preparedness to be the game’s next pin-up girl and whether her looks would make it harder for her to succeed.
Seriously, these questions were asked to a 16-year-old.
How prepared are you to fill the Kournikova gap?
Sharapova: I don’t really need to be prepared for that. I mean, I just do my own thing, just try to worry about myself, you know, just do my own thing all the time, not try to be, you know, whoever else or try to close the gap.
In which way was it special to win in what the British tabloids call the Battle of the Babes? Was it a special playing against Ashley?
Sharapova: Was it special? No. Every opponent is the same to me … I mean, I don’t know what the tabloids are saying. Doesn’t really bother me. Just go out and play my game, whoever it is.
What’s the biggest difficulty with certain looks and a certain ability to keep concentrated on the sport?
Sharapova: Can you repeat that, please?
With certain looks and abilities in tennis, what’s difficult to keep concentrated on the sports?
Sharapova: I don’t understand the question.
What’s the danger not to be distracted from playing tennis when you’ve got certain looks and certain abilities in the sport, for example, like Anna Kournikova? What’s the dangers?
Sharapova: For me, there is no danger. I go out there and try to beat everyone who is on the other side of the court.
Maria Sharapova serves to Ashley Harkleroad during their match at Wimbledon in 2003.Source:AFP
It’s the type of line of questioning that would prompt outrage in 2020 but barely made a ripple 17 years ago.
That’s not to say Sharapova wouldn’t later leverage her looks to become one of the most financially successful athletes — male or female, in any sport — of all-time.
She’d pose in swimsuits for Sports Illustrated and in short skirts after winning major titles as she crafted a classy public image, was sought out by brands like Nike, Porsche and Tag Heuer and banked an estimated $300 million in prize money and endorsements.
She also helped the case for female players to receive equal pay in at tournaments — an enduring legacy despite her unpopularity in the locker room and the controversy surrounding her drugs ban.
Yes, she was a babe. And yes, she won the battle.
Maria Sharapova poses with the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen after winning the 2014 French Open. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)Source:Getty Images
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