Sharapova designs strategy for success

From catwalk to tennis court, Russia's former world No 1 has a winning look

Flushing Meadows

They were 12 hours that encapsulated the double lives of Maria Sharapova. At 9pm on Thursday evening the 24-year-old Russian, dressed to the nines, was showcasing her autumn clothing collection in one of the swish fashion shops in the heart of New York's SoHo district. At 9am the next morning the world No 4 was out on a practice court at Flushing Meadows, belting the ball as if there were no tomorrow.

There have been times in the past three years, as she struggled to recover from shoulder surgery, when you wondered whether Sharapova's future might lie on the catwalk or in the design studios rather than on the tennis court, but this summer has underlined her determination to continue living her parallel lives to the full.

Having followed the best clay-court season of her career, including a run to the French Open semi-finals, with her first appearance in the Wimbledon final since her breakthrough victory seven years ago, the former world No 1 goes into this week's US Open as second favourite behind the ultimate comeback queen, Serena Williams. Last weekend's win in Cincinnati, where Sharapova beat four players ranked in the world's top 15, confirmed that she is close to recapturing the form that made her the world's best player.

"I was faced with adversity a few times in my career and through injury, and I've had to make many decisions on how to move forward and how to make myself a better player," Sharapova said. "So to be in these stages of tournaments, it's gratifying and means a lot to me. My motivation this year and my level out on the practice courts and little things have definitely stepped up from the past year.

"I think little by little, with some luck and hard work, things sometimes go more your way than others. But it's a life of an athlete. One day everything is great and one day something can happen, so I think I try to be level-headed on many things that come my way – wins, losses, injuries, personal things. It's just about keeping a pretty streamlined life."

Does she feel she is back to her best? "I think it's always difficult to compare. You're at different stages in your life and your career. I was much younger when I achieved my first success, so it's tough to compare those moments. I'm definitelyon the right track, in the right direction. I feel like I'm improving."

While Sharapova is at her highest place in the world rankings since shoulder surgery in October 2008, her position as the world's highest- paid sportswoman has been unchallenged for seven years. The latest analysis of sport's top earners published in Forbes magazine estimated her annual earnings at $25 million (about £15.4m), double those of the second woman on the list, her fellow tennis star Caroline Wozniacki.

Attractive sportswomen have long been a target for fashion designers looking to promote their products, but Sharapova is different to many in that she takes a keen interest in every aspect of the business, from the design through to manufacturing and even shop-floor sales.

Her deal with Cole Haan – the American clothing, shoe, handbag and accessory designer for which she launched her autumn range last week – is structured so that her own rewards rise along with the company's success.

Twenty-four hours before her SoHo appearance Sharapova had been in a smart hotel in Midtown Manhattan launching a range of bags she helped design for Head, her racket manufacturer. Sitting alongside her stablemate, Novak Djokovic, Sharapova explained her part in the project.

"I was very hands-on in the process," she said. "One of the things I wanted to have was my own collection, with a few different pieces in it. I was involved in everything from the shape, to the material, to the logo, to the lining in the bag, to everything the bag comes with, including the shoe bag inside. I was involved with every detail."

For now, the fashion icon will step aside to let the tennis player take centre stage, even if Sharapova's first appearance on court – against Britain's Heather Watson – is guaranteed to attract the style watchers keen to see her New York outfit. But for the return of Williams, Sharapova would be the favourite to repeat her 2006 triumph here, when she dropped one set in the whole tournament and beat the world's top two players, Amélie Mauresmo and Justine Henin. She would welcome the chance to test herself against Williams, whom she can only meet in the final.

"To be honest, I love playing against her," Sharapova said. "We've had very, very tough matches against each other. I don't have a great record against her and I would love to change that."

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