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Despite being 20, Maria has had a full tennis career

The Desert Sun March 13, 2008

INDIAN WELLS - Maria Sharapova has been part of women's tennis and endorsement deals for so long, it's difficult to remember she still can't legally walk into a casino or buy a drink in California.

Then again, Sharapova has packed more into her career one month before her 21st birthday than most players experience in a lifetime.

"I'm almost 21 years old and I've already had ups and downs in my career," Sharapova said Wednesday in her first appearance at the 2008 Pacific Life Open. "In a way, I'm fortunate to have the downs."

A down 2007 season, plagued by a shoulder injury and other physical problems and featuring just one tournament title, has given way to a glorious start to the 2008 season for Sharapova.

Reminding fans that she has more than just model good looks and star charisma, Sharapova begins play in Indian Wells undefeated for the season. She's 14-0 in her two tournament victories and 2-0 in Fed Cup play for Russia.

"It feels good. I was just fortunate that I've been able to stay healthy this whole ride," said Sharapova, who added a third Grand Slam title to her achievements at the Australian Open in January. "Aside from getting sick there in Doha (a viral illness that forced her to withdraw from the Dubai tournament), I think serious injury-wise, my shoulder has held up."

Sharapova is the fourth seed in the Indian Wells event, a result of her slip down the computer rankings in 2007. But now healthy and playing some of the best tennis of her career, she might be a favorite to repeat her 2006 Pacific Life title.

Part of Sharapova's early season success coming to Indian Wells is her health. Injuries to her right shoulder and left hamstring forced her to withdraw from seven tournaments in 2007 and limited her effectiveness when she could play.

"Basically the whole last year and even before last year, the whole offseason, all the Grand Slams and a few others, I was playing with like painkillers before every single match," she admitted. "Even though when you are doing the match that might be taking care of the pain or whatever you are feeling, you know in the back of your mind it is not 100 percent."

The injuries also limited her practice work, since she couldn't effectively work on her serves or her backhand volley, she said.

"When you can't work on things you want to work on, it's basically a waste of time," she said.

After an offseason that saw Sharapova let the injuries heal while working on her physical and mental preparation, Sharapova has also brought something else to the court this year: renewed confidence.

"It gives me more confidence that I did come through (the injuries)," she said. "If I ever do have a serious injury again or if I do have any gaps, some frustrating losses or I don't produce the kind of tennis I know I can produce, I know that I can come back and play even better tennis than I did before."

Her 2008 run began at the Australian Open, where she was the No. 5 seed. Sharapova didn't drop a set in the fortnight, including wins over top-ranked Justine Henin in the quarterfinals and Ana Ivanovic, the Pacific Life's top seed, in the final.

Sharapova had already won Slam titles at the U.S. Open in 2006 and Wimbledon in 2004.

Sharapova, sporting a new bangs-dominated blonde hairstyle, is hardly a grizzled veteran at 20. But she does have the experience to warn other players of the pitfalls that must be ahead.

"Some of the girls that are coming up, that are 21 or 22, they are going up, up, up right now," she said. "I think everyone is realistic. Everyone is going to have some down moments in their careers and they are going to have injuries."

As for her own torrid start this year, Sharapova is equally realistic.

"This year is very young," she said with a smile. "I have many more tournaments, many more interviews with you guys."
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