View Full Version : Sharapova in the running - www.the-times.co.uk article

Jun 27th, 2004, 10:36 AM
The 17-year-old Russian has the power, stamina and ambition to claim the sport’s ultimate prize, writes Nick Pitt for The Sunday Times
http://images.thetimes.co.uk/images/trans.gifThe girl, barely 17, was thrilled to be playing on Centre Court for the first time. She had been watching Tim Henman on television and telling herself that soon it would be her turn. And when she won, she allowed the competitor’s mask to slip,spread her arms high and wide and jumped up and down in delight, as if she had won the title — which she just may do.

Maria Sharapova, during the hour she was on court early on Friday evening, showed why she has advanced some hundred places to 15th in the world rankings in the year since she first played the championships, and why she has progressed from wild card with prurient interest attached to contender.

NI_MPU('middle');Her ground strokes, hit flat and hard, were unerring. She can go close to the lines, or find the corners, as she pleases. Her power is greater, her consistency much improved. Sharapova was as intense as we remember, playing every point, every shot, for her life, always wanting to murder the ball. And with the nerveless confidence of youth, she was not in the least daunted by the new stage, but lifted her game for the occasion, to produce one of the best matches of her short career. Mercilessly, she dispatched her failing third-round opponent, Daniela Hantuchova, who had reached the final in Eastbourne six days previously, 6-3, 6-1.

When the energy and certainty of youth is amalgamated with ability and ruthlessness, as it is with Sharapova, you have the makings of a champion. She knows it, and she knows where she is going. “I know that I want to win this tournament,” she said. “If not this year, then next year. I just want to do it.”

Her image is misleading. Because she is blonde, pretty, long-legged and Russian, she is inevitably compared to Anna Kournikova. But Sharapova knows herself, and knows that the chief quality of her personality is far more profound. It is fortitude.

“I’m a tough girl,” she said. “I fight for every ball. It’s important to me, and that shows. It’s my desire to be the best. I just want to win. And I know what it takes to be No 1 and to win a Grand Slam event. It’s just hard work. There’s nothing else to it. Working day after day, off season as well, before and during tournaments. And that’s what I’m prepared to do.”

The toughness comes from a deep innate competitiveness, and life experience. Sharapova is an only child, who was born in Siberia and moved to Sochi on the Black Sea at the age of two. “I first picked up a racket when I was 4Å years old,” she said. “My father was a friend of Yevgeny Kafelnikov’s dad, and they used to play each other for beers. Then I was given one of Yevgeny’s rackets and I started playing with that. It was tough to get on a court in those days, and in the winter, I just used to hit against a wall. That wasn’t so good, because I always wanted to win.”

For the same reason, she hated doing drills. She wanted to beat other people. Then, when she was seven, her father, Uri, who knew his daughter had talent, made an extraordinary decision. With little money and no contacts, he took Maria to Florida, home of the tennis camps, the factories of champions and broken dreams. They arrived in Miami with $700. Sharapova’s mother, who could not get a visa, stayed in Russia.

“It was difficult,” Sharapova said. “Dad had to find work and I had to learn English, which took me three months.”

Sharapova’s father got a job as a tennis coach in Venice, Florida. Two years later, his daughter was invited to attend the most famous tennis factory of all, the Bollettieri Sports Academy at Bradenton, whose graduates include Monica Seles, Andre Agassi and Kournikova.

“I spent my first year there living in a dormitory with other girls,” Sharapova said. “I was nine and they were 16 and 17-year-olds. My dad came to see me once a week, but I was mostly by myself. I wasn’t part of the group and I wasn’t invited to their parties.

“I was unhappy, but I learnt a lot about myself. It was difficult living by myself and developing my tennis, but I managed to get through it. I learnt to be a better fighter. And I never cried.”

She found solace on the tennis court. By the time she was 11, the family had been reunited, living in Bradenton and dedicated to Maria’s career. “I keep telling her dad there’s no rush,” Nick Bollettieri said at the time. “The girl knows how to win, which is very rare at her age, and the fundamentals are all there.”

Sharapova said: “Whenever I go on court, I just think about my tennis performance. I don’t think about what I’m going to look like or what people are thinking. I’ve said this so many times. Tennis is my No 1 priority, and I won’t allow marketing opportunities or anything else to interfere with that. I’m here to play tennis and not to think about anything else.

“I am actually an outgoing person, but I don’t smile on court because I’m afraid I might lose my concentration. I have my focus and I don’t want to let it go.”

Sharapova’s match demeanour can indeed be irritating and alarming. Although her grunts and screams, which are absent when she practises, are not quite as ear-piercing as they were, they remain manic. Her habit of walking to the back netting between points to conduct private motivational ceremonies is close to gamesmanship. When a big point comes, especially on her opponent’s serve, she takes just a little longer.

When her game is on, as it was against Hantuchova, with flat-out hitting on both wings in the manner of the Williams sisters, it is close to irresistible. But it is not yet the finished product. Her movement sometimes seems ungainly, as if her legs are stilts, and as a result she is often slow to chase down the awkward ball.

That weakness has been exposed by the top Russian, Anastasia Myskina, who beat Sharapova in a close match at the Australian Open and much more easily at Indian Wells in March. Myskina was drawn to meet Sharapova again at Wimbledon, in the fourth round. But tired and ill- prepared, she lost to Amy Frazier, which has made Sharapova’s corner of the draw most inviting. The defeat of Venus Williams, a possible semi-final opponent, removes a further obstacle to Sharapova’s progression. She has proved her form and grass-court credentials by winning the pre-Wimbledon tournament in Birmingham. She has a draw that makes her favourite to reach the semi-final stage at least. And she has no fear of winning. “I don’t feel any pressure. I like these challenges. Life can take you by surprise, so I live for today, one day at a time, one match at a time, to enjoy the good moments.” There will be plenty ahead. Whether Sharapova can win this year, at 17, as Boris Becker did in 1985, is doubtful. But she could certainly come close.

Jun 28th, 2004, 08:51 AM
Thank you very much for the article!