Sharapova Is New Focus
SHARAPOVA IS NEW FOCUS
By Ian Laybourn, PA Sport
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Rising star Maria Sharapova helped to fill the void created by the sudden departure of Anna Kournikova on and off court at the DFS Classic in Birmingham.
In the absence of Kournikova, who has returned to Miami for further treatment on a persistent back injury, the battery of photographers trained their lens on the leggy 16-year-old blonde from Serbia.
And, while Kournikova's career continues to nosedive, Sharapova intends to maintain her remarkable climb until she reaches the pinnacle of the sport.
Already, she promises to be the name on everyone's lips at Wimbledon after she underlined her growing reputation with a quickfire win at the Edgbaston Priory on Tuesday.
The glamorous teenager took just 52 minutes to inflict a 6-1 6-1 first-round defeat on another Russian, Evgenia Koulikovskaya, who is 34 places higher in the world rankings.
The Florida-based Sharapova, ranked 125 in the world, had to win through three qualifying rounds to reach the main draw in both the Australian and French Opens but she is expected to be handed a wild card for Wimbledon.
And fans at the All England Club could be in for a treat if Sharapova plays half as well as she talks.
"I've always wanted to be number one in the world," she said, oozing confidence at a news conference in Birmingham. "It's been a dream of mine since I was a little girl."
Sharapova, who was recommended by Martina Navratilova at the age of six to the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, comes across as a level-headed youngster with a steely determination to achieve her goals.
And she insists that she will not be diverted from her aims nor go off the rails in the way that prevented Andrea Jaeger and Tracy Austin from achieving their full potential.
"I'm in control," she said. "If I don't want to do something, I won't do it. I'm a very independent person. I know what I want and how to achieve it."
Inevitably, Sharapova has been dubbed "the new Kournikova" and an appearance in Vanity Fair suggests she loves the attention but she is quick to play down comparisons with her famous compatriot.
"I don't really mind, I go with the flow," she said. "There is nothing I can do about it. I'm not the next anyone, I'm the first me."
Sharapova, who was due to play Kournikova in the semi-finals of a tournament in Georgia two months ago before injury intervened, not only has the curvaceous body of Daniela Hantuchova but possesses a grunt of which Monica Seles would be proud.
Her screeches echoed around the Edgbaston complex and inevitably provoked questions on the subject at the post-match conference.
"Some people think that I do it on purpose but I don't," she said. "I've been doing it since I was three years old and so it's hard for me to stop."
Sharapova is in good company in Birmingham, where Elena Dementieva is top seed, but number four seed Elena Bovina, from Moscow, made a surprise exit at the hands of a girl 81 places below her in the world rankings.
Japan's Shinobu Asagoe reached the last 16 with a 6-3 6-3 win over the 22nd world-ranked Bovina on Centre Court but it was a mere blip in the Russian revolution.
"There are a lot of good Russians coming through and it's very competitive," added Sharapova. "It's great to be part of it."
Veteran American Lisa Raymond, who also reached the last 16 on Tuesday, said: "I don't know what they're putting in the water in Russia but they're producing an awful lot of players."
Raymond, 29, who won the Birmingham title three years ago, is convinced that women's tennis in general is in a healthy state, particularly after the defeat of Serena Williams at Roland Garros.
"It's in an incredible state," she said. "There are players out there who can beat the Williams sisters on a consistent basis, which is great for the game.
"There is a lot of depth and a lot of different personalities."
British tennis, unfortunately, shows little sign of catching up on the rest of the world.
Jane O'Donoghue, the British number five from Wigan, was left to fly the flag single-handedly when British champion Anne Keothavong pulled out through injury.
The Hackney-born Keothavong, 19, has failed to recover from a wrist injury she sustained in reaching the last four of the Surbiton Trophy last week and joined Elena Baltacha on the sidelines.
O'Donoghue was due to play number three seed Magdelena Maleeva, from Bulgaria, in the second round on Tuesday when the heavens opened and sent both players scurrying for shelter.
Although the rain stopped by 5pm, the courts were drenched and play was abandoned for the d