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Old Sep 3rd, 2010, 05:55 AM   #205
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Re: ** Masha News and Articles! ** Vol. 2

Maria Sharapova Deserves More Respect

Christopher Botta

NEW YORK -- She's the most glamorous star on the women's tennis circuit and a three-time champion at Grand Slam tournaments, yet sometimes it seems like Maria Sharapova is under-appreciated.

Yes, the young woman with the world-class athletic ability, stuffed trophy case, megawatt smile, her own fashion line and lucrative endorsement deals. That Maria Sharapova.

Allow me to be clear here: no one is saying woe is Maria. The 23-year-old Russian with the dazzling beauty and groundstrokes, who won 6-1, 6-2 over Iveta Benesova on Thursday night to advance to the third round of the U.S. Open, lives quite the charmed life. She has been the best-paid female athlete in the world, and in January signed an $80 million deal with Nike. She loves her adopted town of Los Angeles as much as it loves her.

But in tennis circles, such as the real-time capital -- the U.S. Open in New York, N.Y., with its National Tennis Center filled with players, coaches and commentators from all over the globe -- Sharapova is written off as a movie star instead of a deeply respected talent. Angelina Jolie more than Meryl Streep.

Fact is, she's more than a little bit of both.

In a sport in which Anna Kournikova serves as the poster model for fame over ability and achievement, Sharapova is the rare combination of all of the above. If she chooses to pass on a photo shoot on any given day, it sure isn't for a lack of suitors. As for Sharapova's achievements on the playing surface, the list is topped off by the trio of titles at majors: 2004 at Wimbledon, 2006 here and 2008 at the Australian Open. Among her colleagues on the WTA Tour, only Serena and Venus Williams and Justine Henin have more. She has advanced to the semifinals of slam events six times -- at least once at each of the four majors. Sharapova has won 19 additional tour titles, and only a major shoulder injury that sidelined her from August 2008 to May 2009 broke up a five-year run in the top 10.

At still such a young age, Sharapova -- with Venus Williams and Kim Clijsters, the biggest name left in the Open's women's draw -- is admirably unveiling a worldly conscience. She is a global ambassador for the United Nations Development Program. After Wimbledon in July, she visited the Belarus region where her parents fled months before she was born, months before the disaster at Chernobyl took place just a hundred miles away in 1986. The goodwill tour came with ESPN cameras and an abundance of Nike swooshes, but there isn't anything wrong with a star using a high profile and adoring sponsors for good.

Just as impressively, she honors her game and those who came before her. Warming up prior to her match on Monday night, she saw Martina Navratilova and Jimmy Connors hitting two courts away. Since she was facing a lefty in Benesova a few hours later, Sharapova shyly asked Navratilova if she would hit a few serves her way. "She aced me," said Sharapova.

After her straight-sets victory, Sharapova relayed something about her interactions with Billie Jean King, whom the National Tennis Center is named after.

"When I talk to Billie Jean King, she says, 'There's always going to be somebody in your spot. No matter how you do, how much you achieve, there's always going to be the next person that comes along that's going to be No. 1. There's going to be tons of them coming ahead. But at this point you guys are setting the bar for the younger generations to come. We are. We try to be good examples."

Frequently in the spotlight off the court, Sharapova flourishes in prime time on it. After her victory on Monday over Benesova, Sharapova is now 12-0 under the lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium at the U.S. Open. Funny thing about her tennis, though. As she demonstrated once again on the Open's grandest stage against Benesova, there is very little glitz to her play. Grunting while whipping backhand winners behind the baseline past her overmatched opponent from the Czech Republic, Sharapova had the substance of a respected workhorse on the tour.

Sharapova occasionally drops hints about retiring early. When Henin retired -- the first time -- at age 25, Sharapova remarked that if she had "all those majors" at that age, she'd walk off the court, too. On the notion of playing on the tour into her 30s, Sharapova said she hoped to have a husband and a few kids by then.

Appreciate Sharapova's game while you can. It's time the tennis community recognized her for more than the obvious.
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