Sharapova poised to join elite club
By Mark Hodgkinson
The rise of Maria Sharapova could hardly have been a more exhilarating and precocious one, and the Russian teenager, who has probably been the unofficial best for some months, is now just a flat-hit forehand or two away from achieving her long-stated and overriding ambition. She may soon top the rankings, becoming the fourth-youngest world No 1 in history.
It was just last week that Sharapova celebrated turning 18, but if she finds some form on the red clay of Berlin next week and wins the German Open, only three women would have reached the rankings summit any quicker than her. All three are among the sport's greats; Martina Hingis, then 16, and a couple of 17-year-olds, Monica Seles and Tracy Austin. Some company for the Siberian.
Sharapova had her Wimbledon triumph last year and has a bank account loaded with endorsement dollars, but she has stated, quite publicly, that she is more interested in the print-out from the rankings computer. "Of course I want to be the world No 1, and that is all I care about when I view my career," she has disclosed.
For someone so young, Sharapova has an astonishing determination and sense of her own destiny. Those cover-girl good looks, the long limbs and the high cheek-bones, have often served to obscure that insouciance of youth, her determination to maximise the talent in her willowy frame. Sharapova has always been less professional model, more model professional, and how she would love to overtake Lindsay Davenport.
All Sharapova has to do at Berlin's Rot-Weiss Club is do what she has never done before. She has never gone beyond the quarter-finals of a clay court event; and then she must win the title. But Sharapova does not do negativity, and if she does come up slightly short, there may well be another opportunity the week after in Rome. She will almost certainly become the world No 1 this season.
And how the sport's money-men want Sharapova as their No 1. If Sharapova does achieve her goal, the likelihood is that it will have a gargantuan effect on tennis, generating extra interest, television air-time, and sponsors. The financial backers have already noticed an upsurge in tennis's stock since the Florida-based prodigy won Wimbledon.
The first major test for Sharapova, who has no major technical weaknesses in her game and is more than willing to take risks with those low, skidding groundstrokes, will come when she has to start defending the ranking points she accumulated last season. There is such a difference between winning a first grand slam, and then winning another. All eyes will be on Sharapova at Wimbledon this summer.
It was just three years ago that Sharapova played the first main-tour event of her career, the wild card reaching the second round of Indian Wells in the Californian desert before she was beaten by Seles. Her breakthrough tournament was in England, at the pre-Wimbledon tournament in Edgbaston two years ago, when she came through the qualifying event and reached the semi-finals.
Sharapova was taking the Soviet Bloc and Nick Bollettieri Academy route to tennis mega-stardom, and she was quickly, and inevitably, touted as the blonde heir apparent to Anna Kournikova. But it was obvious then that, although Sharapova had plenty of media-cool and a sense of her own worth, she was more concerned with hitting tennis balls then being a celebrity. "I'm not the new Anna, I'm the first me," Sharapova said.
She has made a ludicrous amount of money from her endorsements - perhaps as much as £10 million, according to some estimates - but never to the detriment of her tennis. The money-making has never encroached on her court-time. When Sharapova becomes the world No 1, perhaps after results in Berlin or a little later, it will mean so much more to her than a thousand perfume launches.