Tennis: Maria's bedtime secret
By Michael Burgess
She's the most glamorous female tennis player to grace the courts since Anna Kournikova retired, but Russian beauty Maria Sharapova is hardly living the life of a superstar in Auckland.
She was prepared to miss the city's spectacular New Year's Eve fireworks display because she was in bed by 9.30pm, and a trip to the movies to see the critically-panned Little Fockers seems to have been the most exciting off-court action so far.
The former world No 1, in New Zealand to play in the ASB Classic which starts tomorrow, turned down the chance of a sightseeing trip in a helicopter and is still thinking about the offer of a cruise on the Waitemata Harbour.
Training and playing, it seems, is more important than anything.
Sharapova skipped a New Year's Eve function for the players at the Heritage Hotel, instead opting for a meal at SkyCity's Orbit restaurant and an early night.
"We had a nice dinner and a great view of the city," she said at her first media conference of the week yesterday. "The fireworks woke me up. I loved them - they were great. I wish I could have stayed up to watch them but I was too tired."
A spokesman for Orbit said Sharapova was "lovely to deal with".
A self-confessed foodie, she's eaten mostly at the hotel, though she's had a Thai meal at a Viaduct restaurant.
She hasn't mixed with the public much either, except for a wander up Queen St soon after her arrival, noticing the vertical bungy jump - "not something in my league" - and a lack of pushy residents.
"Normally people want an autograph or photo, but they just wanted to wish me good luck and tell me how great it was that I was here."
If anyone is to get a glimpse of the Russian beauty off the court, it might be an art dealer - she loves modern art and is looking to take some home. But though she also loves New Zealand wool, there is little chance of any leaving the country with her: "You have great rugs - but I am afraid I won't be able to send them or take them because they are so big."
Everywhere she goes, she is accompanied by a Kiwi security guard, apparently the same one hired to protect Tom Cruise when he was here for a film.
Tournament organiser Richard Palmer said the one-to-one protection had been done only once before for the women's tournament - when Kournikova visited. There will be extra security at the courts, too.
"We want to keep it Kiwi style - there won't be four big gorillas around her, but we have to take the measures necessary given her standing," Palmer said. "Plain clothes - you won't even notice they are there."
Perhaps it's just as well Sharapova has not needed too much time or money spent on extra-curricular activities - Palmer confirmed the tournament had already paid "considerably more than it ever has for a player" to get her here.
"But we paid less than most other tournaments would as the agent realises what is fair in our market."
Sharapova has drawn a tough first round match, against world No 57, Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro. She will find out whether she plays tomorrow or Tuesday after qualifying finishes today.
Tennis: Fans' true colours
Maria Sharapova has yet to play a match in Auckland but already has a committed fan club.
North Shore resident Craig Rendle and his group has dedicated months to planning their support for the Russian glamour girl.
They have a corporate box for the entire week and all attendees will be kitted head to toe in LA Lakers uniforms, a tribute to Sharapova's basketball-playing fiance Sacha Vujacic.
"Blonde wigs are so yesterday, and we wanted something different," explained Rendell. "We have chants and songs prepared, and we hope Maria likes the support."
Last laugh Sharapova - Vujacic was traded to the New Jersey Nets two weeks ago.