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Old Jun 20th, 2005, 05:46 PM   #154
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Maria goes shopping for another day in dreamland

By Ronald Atkin


19 June 2005

Had there ever been doubt that the Wimbledon champion is eager to get on with the defence of her title, Maria Sharapova's arrival well ahead of schedule for our chat immediately dispelled it. Her Women's Tennis Association minder having been wrong-footed by such punctuality, Maria perched alone on a chair outside the All England Club's interview room No 3, looking every cent's worth of the $50m (£27m) she is supposed to be worth, braided blonde hair restrained by a bandana which matched her cummerbund and elegant open-toed, high-heeled shoes.

Shoes are Maria's weakness, the one thing the girl who suddenly has everything still can't resist going out to shop for. On that shopping list, however, shoes come well behind Wimbledon among her favourite things, for it was at Wimbledon 12 months back that what this 18-year-old beauty regards as her destiny came to pass. The inheritance of that destiny was evident on the day Sharapova had dedicated to pre-Wimbledon media matters; clumps of cameramen assembled on the players' tea lawn, with each TV channel allocated a maximum of three minutes for the interviewer to probe the champion's mind and for the lens to roam around this class act. It is impossible to think of another athlete at the top of her profession so stunningly glamorous, so composed, so assured, so confident. Perhaps that is part of Maria's intimidation strategy, to look so brilliant that the opposition will seek the nearest court cover to crawl beneath.

The moment in July 2004 when Sharapova fell to her knees on Centre Court in the chalk dust of the baseline, the moment when Serena Williams had the title torn from her, was, she says now, "the moment that I was brought on earth for". Her first Grand Slam. Still her only Grand Slam. And if she could win another of the major titles, what would it be, Maria?

"A second Wimbledon," she replies firmly. "It means more to me than any other tournament. You just get that feeling inside of you when you come to Wimbledon. There are so many other things about this place, the people, the organisation, the whole site. I feel really comfortable. It's a lot like home to me."

Sharapova is geared for that title defence, aches and pains of the clay-court season banished, basking in the comforting warmth of a title won on grass at Birmingham last weekend. A repeat title, too, which might be interpreted as an omen were she superstitious. Realism, not superstition, is what she deals in. "Of course, defending it is going to be tougher than winning, but hopefully I can just play great tennis. I didn't know I could win last year, and if I don't defend this time that is going to be a major upset in my life. But last year is something I can cherish the rest of my life, it's not like somebody is going to take it away."

On the question of who in particular might be best qualified to knock the crown from her pretty head, Maria stresses that the opposition are all alike as far as she is concerned. "I don't have any rivalries, I get along fine with everyone. I don't harbour hurt feelings against anyone. And I'm not envious of anyone. I just love competing against the top players, win or lose."

Required to assess the threat of Justine Henin-Hardenne, whom she could meet in the semi-finals and to whom she has lost twice recently, in Berlin and at the French Open, Sharapova tabled her admiration for the Belgian battler and her achievements in the face of adversity, pointing out: "I've been through a lot too when I was younger, so I know that these situations make you stronger."

Addressing those defeats, Maria said: "First of all, we were playing on clay, her favourite surface and my least favourite. In Berlin, she played an amazing match when the conditions were heavy and in her favour. I didn't play badly, she was just too good for me. In the French I am not going to say she was the better player, but she was the stronger mentally.

"So can I beat her on grass? I'm going to do my best, and not just against her. But every match with Justine is going to be difficult, no matter where we play."

Becoming Wimbledon champion not only made Sharapova immensely richer, but tougher and better as a tennis player. "Life from that day changed completely. The world woke up to me and it was so amazing. I felt like everyone was touched by it and wanted to become part of it. I got so many things sent to my house. I got clothes, hair products, spa products, flowers, shoes. Usually at Christmas I'm saying I want this or that. But last Christmas I realised I didn't need anything. I have everything, I'm settled.

"But still I need to shop. I could never give that up, even if I had everything in the world. My biggest weakness is shoes. Even if I have 10 pairs of the same style I still want the 11th."

Sharapova would also quite like a stronger serve, but in general is content with the level of improvement over the past 12 months. "Last year I didn't feel I could last two weeks physically. Now I am much more experienced and that helps. I have the 'been there, done that' feeling, so I know how to do it again. I can last through a tournament better now, I can play tougher matches, I recover a lot better. Though there was no particular shot last year that was terrible, I want to make every single shot better than it is now, and that is possible. I also need to get physically stronger, but that doesn't happen overnight. I am still only 18 and my body hasn't matured."

Born on 19 April 1987, Sharapova describes herself as "a typical Aries, I always have to be doing something, I can't sit still even for a few minutes." She reads a lot, running the gamut from Sherlock Holmes to her favourite bedtime books, Pippi Longstocking. Much of Maria's spare time these days is devoted to the setting up of her own charitable foundation. After last year's school massacre in Beslan, she donated the Porsche given to her as winner of the WTA's season-ending championships to that Russian cause, and made black ribbons for the other Russian players to wear.

Born in Siberia and plucked from the Black Sea resort of Sochi at the age of eight to learn tennis the hard way at Nick Bollettieri's Florida academy, Sharapova still makes her home in that state, as her fluent American-accented English demonstrates. Those US leanings persuaded some other Russian women to complain they didn't want her in their team for the international competition, the Fed Cup. Sharapova says airily that all is now resolved and she will play Fed Cup, but not this year.

As for whether she considers she won Wimbledon for Russia, the teenager responds vigorously: "Tennis is an individual sport, and when you win you don't think about who you won it for. It was an amazing moment for me to become the first Russian to win Wimbledon, but you don't think of that right afterwards."

Perhaps so, but a Sharapova repeat at Wimbledon would be guaranteed to bring a smile to the faces of many in Mother Russia.
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