By Ossian Shine
LONDON, Oct 7 (Reuters) - From the start the comparisons were inevitable, for like her fellow Russian Anna Kournikova, Maria Sharapova has the world at her feet.
She too is blonde, endowed with oodles of glamour and is a precocious talent on the tennis court.
Like Kournikova, Sharapova left the land of her birth to seek her fortune in the United States.
Like Kournikova, her English is spoken with a strong American twang.
And like Kournikova, Sharapova sets camera shutters rattling like a tree full of cicadas whenever she steps on to a tennis court.
But in Tokyo at the weekend 16-year-old Sharapova managed something her better-known compatriot has yet to achieve and won her first WTA title.
Victory over Aniko Kapros in the first final of her short career immediately elevated the teenager from marketing man's dream to a credible player.
It was only a small step in the big scheme of things and no guarantee of great things to come.
It was, however, a statement of intent and whatever the player dubbed the "Siberian Siren" due to her Nyagan birthplace achieves from now on, nobody will be able to take this precious title from her.
"I never really thought about it (winning her first title), but now that I have won I'm thinking about it and saying, 'Yes!"' said Sharapova with the easy manner she has already shown to charming effect.
"I'm happy that I showed I can play good tennis and can actually pull it through in a final.
"I think that shows that I'm out here to play tennis. It shows the good side of me, not the looks or anything, the side of a champion."
Sharapova has never let the comparisons to Kournikova bother her, often saying they "don't really matter to me...I try to do my thing."
Her father Yuri has been more direct. "They're both Russian, both blonde and both play tennis. That's about all they have in common," is his verdict.
That is not strictly the case. Both women are as comfortable in the TV studio as on the tennis court and both face the media with disarming candour.
Both women take great care over their appearance both on and off court -- Sharapova sites fashion as one of her off-court interests as does her 22-year-old forerunner.
But while Kournikova is a regular in the finest restaurants and celebrity hang-outs around the world, Sharapova's culinary interests are more tailored to her teenage years.
"Strawberry ice cream, caramel frappucinos and chocolate. I love to eat, and if I could, I'd eat every second of my life," she grins when asked of her guilty secrets.
She is only 16, however. Sixteen and on the first step.
"I always just try to be myself," she is fond of saying. "I don't worry about who people think I am. I know I'm Maria, nobody else. I just want to do my own thing. I'm Maria Sharapova and not anyone else."
With a title already tucked away for good measure, she wouldn't want it any other way.
10/07/03 05:41 ET