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Old Nov 1st, 2004, 05:15 AM   #40
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Superstar Sharapova soars into Advanta
Saturday, October 30, 2004

Wimbledon champ brings game to area
Courier-Post Staff

In a sense, Maria Sharapova represents everything that Billie Jean King has fought so hard for over the past 30 years.

At 17, she quickly has become the face of women's tennis, replacing Venus and Serena Williams as the most popular draw on the Women's Tennis Association tour, which makes a weeklong stop in Villanova, Pa., next week for the $585,000 Advanta Championships.

Sharapova is young and beautiful, but as she showed by becoming the first Russian to win Wimbledon this year, she also is extremely talented. And because of that she is beginning to distance herself from comparisons to Russian heartthrob Anna Kournikova.

"She's just ignited women's tennis this year," King said Friday at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where the draw for next week's tournament was made. "She's by far the biggest ticket-seller we have in the game. She's got the `it' factor. People love watching her and boy can she hit the ball hard. She's highly intense."

A year ago, Sharapova could have slid in and out of Villanova's Pavilion unnoticed. But, since winning Wimbledon, she has become tennis' hottest attraction. Unlike Kournikova, who never won a major tournament, Sharapova is looking for her fifth WTA victory of 2004.

She is ranked seventh in the world and is fifth in earnings this year at more than $1.4 million. She already has signed endorsement deals with Nike, NEC and Prince, and early next year she will begin marketing her own line of perfume.

In many ways, King is happy for Sharapova and what she has done for women's tennis. Since King founded the WTA in 1971, annual prize money has soared from $350,000 to more than $60 million.

What concerns King most is the exploitation of Sharapova. She would like her to be recognized as a wonderful tennis player who happens to be beautiful, instead of a supermodel who happens to play tennis.

"I would like men to talk about our accomplishments the way they talk about male athletes' accomplishments," said King, who is just as famous for beating Bobby Riggs in 1973 as for being a 20-time Wimbledon champion.

"That's what's really important to us, because we put in the time and effort just like any (male) athlete," she said. "When I played Bobby Riggs, (former ABC television commentator) Howard Cosell did not say one thing about my accomplishments. He said if I cut my hair and got rid of my glasses I could be a movie star in Hollywood.

"Now that is sick. Look how he talked about me as a woman."

King, 60, wants Sharapova to be given the respect she fought so hard to attain after that historic win over Riggs. She wants Sharapova to be appreciated for her booming serve and strong groundstrokes, not as a Kournikova look-alike who chases endorsements harder than she chases opponents' drop shots.

It is hard to ignore, however, that Kournikova's popularity helped fuel the recent surge in Russian tennis. Four of the top seven women in the WTA rankings are from Russia. King believes Kournikova, who is now retired, is the reason.

"They saw her have an unbelievable life," King said. "She really started this revolution with the Russian women."

In addition to Sharapova, Anastasia Myskina, Vera Zvonareva and Nadia Petrova - all among the top 14 money earners on the WTA - will be competing in the Advanta Championships. Why the surge of Russian dominance?

"They do so well because they have it rough where they live compared to us," King said. "These kids are brought up in environments that are very disciplined and they understand that it's such a privilege to play in this country."

"They understand the opportunity to have an unbelievable life and the freedom to speak and do whatever you want," King added.

For Sharapova, that means playing tennis - and lots of it. Next week will mark her 20th tournament of the year. And at the age of 17, King believes that is simply too much.

"I've already talked to her about it," King said. "I'm worried she's playing too much. I'm concerned already. She loves to play tennis and I never want the passion to be taken away from her. I want her to think about her schedule, not just think about the dollars. Most players think so much about money now that they make bad decisions for longevity."

Serves and volleys: The most interesting draw for next week's tournament is an opening-round match next Tuesday night between Venus Williams and Lisa Raymond, a native of Wayne, Pa. Williams is ranked 10th in the world, Raymond 27th. . . . Sharapova earned a first-round bye and her first match will be Wednesday. Defending champion Amelie Mauresmo of France also earned a first-round bye. . . . Serena Williams, ranked ninth in the world, pulled out of the tournament "due to illness."
I hope Maria (and her management..) might listen to some of that advice and make an effort to ease the workload on her so in the future she can avoid injury problems or being burnt out too soon

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