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Old Jul 21st, 2004, 06:51 PM   #3
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Sharapova could be near-perfect franchise for Pop Sports Age

By David Whitley and Steve Elling
The Orlando Sentinel
07-21-2004

Maria Sharapova’s recent Wimbledon victory vaulted the teen to the top of the tennis world. Photo: Michelle McLoughlin/Associated Press ORLANDO, Fla. — It has been more than a week now, and Maria Sharapova hasn’t been wooed by Prince William, outearned Oprah or personally saved tennis.

But remember, she’s only 17.

Winning Wimbledon hasn’t guaranteed Sharapova will become a cultural phenomenon. But the buzz she generated at the All-England Club feels like the first ripple of a tidal wave.

"It reminds me of the old Red Smith line, ‘Truth strangles fiction,"’ veteran announcer Dick Enberg said. "He’s right because you couldn’t make this stuff up."

It’s as if the marketing honchos at IMG got together and constructed a dream athlete.

Talent? Obviously. You don’t beat Serena Williams 6-1, 6-4 in a Grand Slam final on good looks alone.

Looks? Not that appearance should matter, of course. But being six feet tall with long blond hair, ballerina legs and a cover girl’s face probably will not send photographers scurrying to Court 14 to shoot a mixed-doubles match.

Style? The Russian lives to win, ruthlessly returning almost everything shot that crosses the net. Imagine a Bond Girl with a racquet instead of a gun.

Personality? Imagine that Bond Girl with an innocent giggle, quick wit and brains.

History? Anytime a person’s background includes touches of Chernobyl, Pippi Longstocking and Horatio Alger, you have a story that will sell.

Put it all together, and you may have a near-perfect franchise for the Pop Sports Age. With one exception.

Sharapova doesn’t smile. At least not on the court, where she goes about her business like she’s a coroner dissecting a cadaver.

"Well, I would smile. I would do anything," she said. "But I just try to keep my concentration."

It’s a survival skill, the kind of thing a person develops when they are born in Nyaga, Siberia. Yes, that Siberia — where Soviet dissidents used to be sent for re-indoctrination.

The Sharapovas had no problem with Soviet hierarchy. They did have a problem when the Chernobyl nuclear plant spewed its radioactive cloud. Not taking any chances, Yuri Sharapova moved his wife and 1-year-old daughter to the Black Sea resort town of Sochi.

Three years later, the daughter picked up a tennis racquet. Martina Navratilova spotted the 6-year-old slugger at a Moscow exhibition and told Yuri his daughter could be pretty good with some coaching. The problem was the best coaching was half a world away in Bradenton, Fla., home of Nick Bollettieri’s tennis academy.

Yuri had $700 in your pocket and a dream in his heart.

"I was 7 years old," his daughter said. "I had no idea what was going on."

He and his daughter flew to Miami, caught a bus to Bradenton and showed up unannounced at Bollettieri’s. Yuri paid tuition by working odd jobs. Maria lived in a dorm with girls almost twice her age.

They messed up her bed before inspection, kept her awake at night and generally treated her like an unwanted little sister. It didn’t help that Sharapova spoke no English, though she learned it in four months.

That led her to Pippi Longstocking, the novels about a tough, little supergirl whose father was a pirate and mother was in heaven. Sharapova’s mother was in Siberia, and she didn’t see her for two years. Never once did she allow herself to cry about that.

"This girl has no fear," said Robert Langsdorp, Sharapova’s coach. "When the chips are down, she will go for it every time."

By the time she turned pro at 14, everyone knew she was special. Still, nobody expected the skyrocket flight she’s been on the past year, winning three WTA tournaments. She was ranked No. 32 entering the year, made it to the quarterfinals of the French Open and came to Wimbledon as an intriguing curiosity, especially to the Fleet Street tabloids.

July 3, she proved she was much more than just another pretty face.

"It’s an incredible sports story, like walking into Yankee Stadium and tossing a no-hitter as a teenager," NBC analyst Bud Collins said. "There have been plenty of teen tennis stars in the past, but nothing really like this."

Nothing so good, so young and so — political correctness be darned — pretty.

"She’s classically beautiful, yet still a giggly teenager," Enberg said. "But the sharp in Sharapova is definitely there. There’s a toughness under all that beauty. She’s got it.

"More important, it’s terrific for tennis. The game needed a shot in the arm."

Serena Williams has been on automatic pilot. Venus is more interested in fashion. Lindsay Davenport is retiring soon, and Jennifer Capriati can’t be far behind. As for the rest of the tour, most people can’t tell their Myskinas from their Dementievas.

Not that anyone is comparing Sharapova to any of them.

"No Anna questions, right?"

That’s how Sharapova starts some of her news conferences. Who can blame her?

Anna, of course, is Kournikova. The Tennis Barbie who won the hearts and Web sites of millions of young men, even if she never won an actual tournament.

Kournikova still fashioned a lucrative career on her other talents. The comparisons are inevitable, but Sharapova is determined not to become another blond bombshell and tennis dud.

"I never considered myself a pin-up," she said. "I never will."

Well, that makes one of her.

"She definitely has the potential to command a lot of deals on Madison Avenue," said Jeff Chown, managing director of The Marketing Arm, a sports marketing group. "She has looks, charisma, a platform that keeps her in the public eye."

Sharapova is a demographic dream that goes far beyond selling sneakers. She’s a wholesome Britney Spears who could charm millions of consumers into using her favorite credit card, cell phone or soft drink.

"She is what Venus and Serena were a few years ago, and what Tiger Woods is to golf," Enberg said. "She is a $50 million golden girl."

Woods reportedly makes that every eight months or so from his endorsements. Given her age and her marketability, Sharapova may become the female Tiger. Multi Grand Slams. Multi magazine covers. Multimillions of dollars.

Just remember, Planet Sharapova will not be built in a day.

"I always say `so far’ when a kid like that comes along," Collins said. "She’s in a perfect position to get spoiled. Now that success is assured financially, though not competitively, we’ll have to wait and see."

Seven years ago, Kournikova made the Wimbledon semifinals. She was 16 and had the world on her racquet. It slowly slid off.

Now comes Sharapova, who bounced around Wimbledon toting a sociology textbook. She makes straight A’s in her high school courses. She says she doesn’t even have a boyfriend, though the line of volunteers now stretches from Bradenton to the Black Sea. She knows her world is changing fast.

"I hope it doesn’t change the person who I am right now," Sharapova said. "I already told a few people, `If I change, then hit me in the head."’

May they be gentle because she will change. Nobody stays 17 forever. But for now, truth is strangling fiction.

It’s all there. The talent, the looks, the drive. The final piece came out after winning Wimbledon.

The Sharapova smile.

You got the feeling it could be around for a long time.
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