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Old Aug 29th, 2004, 12:33 PM   #24
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Wimbledon winner Sharapova inconsistent, but she's keeping focus


South Florida Sun-Sentinel

NEW YORK - (KRT) - Two weeks after her electric triumph at Wimbledon, Maria Sharapova was in Los Angeles to see one of her gurus, coach Robert Lansdorp, who had done so much in the previous seven years to turn "this little pipsqueak" into a ground-stroking machine.

They embraced on the practice court, and Lansdorp, whose usual persona is one part grouch and one part grumbler, melted. "You're not the princess of tennis anymore," he told her. "You're the queen."

She certainly is among the ruling royalty of women's tennis after winning her first Grand Slam at age 17, but whether she gets a permanent seat on the throne will be determined right here at the U.S. Open during the next fortnight.

This is the final major of the season, and though Sharapova doesn't have to authenticate her new credentials with a title here, she needs to go deep into the draw to build on her success. That will mean playing better than she has the past month.

It hasn't been full-speed ahead for the elegant, precocious and now 6-foot tall Russian pipsqueak since she swept aside Serena Williams in the Wimbledon final with a brutal display of nerveless hitting.

She's won three, lost three and last week in a tournament tuneup in New Haven, Conn., lost her opening match to Mashona Washington, who is at the top of her eight-year career but has hardly placed herself at the level of a champion.

Still, Sharapova looks as unflustered today as she did in that final in London, when most thought, quite incorrectly, that she would walk on court and dissolve into a pool of pudding.

"She was just too good," Sharapova summarized her loss to Washington. More likely, the reason for her loss was that she's still battling the sort of emotional vicissitudes that come with winning Wimbledon at such a young age. To what new heights could she ascend after the performance she put on in London?

"All of a sudden you want to be perfect because you won a Slam. You get that feeling that there are some shots you should always make, and I definitely know there are more people hungry to beat the Wimbledon champion."

Sharapova paused, then added: "But I'm also hungry."

How she reached this pinnacle is a study in the development of a champion. The key figures in this drama are Lansdorp, Bradenton-based coach Nick Bollettieri, her father, Yuri, and most of all, Maria herself.

She is Anna Kournikova with a total commitment to tennis, and that cannot be easy for a photographer magnet who was being swamped by offers and requests for magazine layouts long before she sailed through Williams.

Born in Siberia, Sharapova is seldom in Russia anymore, having moved with her parents to Bollettieri's tennis academy when she was 9. She was small and skinny - a waif.

"But what she had was determination," Bollettieri said. "Very focused. She didn't go up and down in the way she practiced. She didn't have more strength or a bigger serve than the other kids there, but what she had was a belief in herself. That was the trait that stood out."

Some of that strength came from having to live without her parents in the early years at Bollettieri's. Her father was off finding work and was often absent from Bradenton for long periods of time. Her mother was still in Russia.

But when Yuri was finally able to join her, Sharapova's skills increased rapidly. He took copious notes on everything Bollettieri told him about Maria's off-court training, but he never played the interfering parent, as Kournikova's mother had when Anna was working with Bollettieri.

Sharapova's workouts were hard and long, and eventually, Bollettieri said, it became very difficult for her to find hitting partners because the sessions were devoted entirely to her practice needs, not her partner's.

By the time Sharapova was 13, Bollettieri began to see the earmarks of a future champion, as difficult as that was to predict. She was growing and filling out. Her mental strength reminded him of Monica Seles. And there was the ferocity with which she attacked.

"She just hits the damn ball," said Bollettieri, explaining what he liked most about her game. "She knows no other way but to hit the crap out of the ball. Just like Andre (Agassi)."

Her progress wasn't always smooth. As she got taller quickly, her joints began to ache from the sudden growth spurts, and as a result, she went through periods where her footwork was atrocious.

"She would wobble a lot," Bollettieri recalled. "She couldn't get a jump on the ball."

In an effort to seek out experts in every phase of the game, Yuri asked Lansdorp, who had coached Tracy Austin to her early success, to take a look at his daughter.

Like everyone else, Lansdorp was surprised by Sharapova's victory at Wimbledon, though: "I knew she could do well. She had a good draw," he said. Unlike almost everyone else, Lansdorp knew nerves would not be a factor in the final. She had exhibited too much willpower over the past eight years.

Steadily, her game moved forward but without any conspicuous results - until the grass-court season began this year. She then won the lead-up to Wimbledon at Birmingham, defeating Tatiana Golovin in the final, and three weeks later, she was atop the tennis world.

Countless offers were thrown at her because she possessed that brilliant combination of great tennis and physical beauty, but she has rejected almost all of them except for a multiyear, seven-figure deal with Motorola.

"My relationship with other companies has to be where I think the connection is great," Sharapova said. It was her way of saying that she's going to avoid the distractions and the overexposure that seemed to take control of Kournikova's career and fix hard on her tennis.

She'll begin Tuesday against Chicago's Laura Granville - No. 7 vs. No. 68. Sharapova has had her grace period following Wimbledon, long enough to understand she's a target now.

It's time to start deflecting the arrows and back her Wimbledon dream with another strong performance.


© 2004 South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
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