Teenage pair qualify for next big step
BY JEFF HARTSELL
Of The Post and Courier Staff
Three cardboard tubes rested against the leg of the autograph table where 15-year-old Maria Sharapova took up her position Sunday afternoon, a long line of kids and grownups waiting for her to sign. Rolled up inside the tubes were dozens of full-color posters of Sharapova in action with her Prince tennis racket.
The slogan under her name on each poster: "Princess."
The marketing machine is poised and ready to roll, waiting for Sharapova's breakthrough. The Siberian prodigy took a step in that direction Sunday, qualifying for the main draw of the Family Circle Cup with a 7-5, 6-4 victory over Julia Vakulenko of Ukraine.
Shadisha Robinson, the Junior Family Circle Cup champion and another teenager with huge potential, also made the main draw with a gutty 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 win over Evie Dominikovic of Australia.
Robinson, a high school senior from Queens, N.Y., who trains in Hilton Head, trailed 5-3 in the third set before rallying for a victory that was extremely popular in the bleachers overlooking Court 4.
The precocious teens led eight players who won Sunday to qualify for the main draw of the $1.3 million Family Circle Cup. Tathiana Garbin of Italy and Canada's Maureen Drake, who lost in qualifying, also squeezed into the draw as "lucky losers" after the withdrawals of Jennifer Capriati and Monica Seles.
Sunday's victories were major steps for Sharapova and Robinson, both candidates for Next Big Thing in women's tennis.
The FCC is the first Tier One tournament on the WTA Tour that Sharapova has qualified for, and the second major field she's gotten into. She also qualified for the Australian Open earlier this year, losing in the first round.
"This is important for me," said Sharapova. "I feel pretty good about this week. A lot depends on the draw, so I will have to wait and see."
Tall and blonde, Sharapova was just eight years old when tennis legend Martina Navratilova took notice of her, suggesting that she move to the U.S. A pro at the tender age of 13, Sharapova attended the famed Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy and now lives in Los Angeles when she's not on the road chasing tennis fortune and fame.
"I don't consider this a job, or making a living," she said. "I do this because I really enjoy it. It's an exciting life, so I don't think there is anything for me to miss. Of course, it is making a living, but if it was only that I wouldn't be happy waking up every morning and going to work."
Robinson, 18 and a powerful left-hander, already is a fan favorite on Daniel Island, thanks to her victory at the Junior Family Circle Cup last month. That earned her a spot in FCC qualifying, and she made the most of it with the win over Dominikovic, who was ranked 119th last year and made the third round of the Australian Open earlier this year.
With Dominikovic serving for the match at 5-4, Robinson earned a break point and watched as her opponent resorted to lofting moon balls. Finally, Robinson rushed the net and punched one of the floaters away for 5-5.
Robinson held serve on a forehand winner for 6-5, and went up 0-30 on Dominkovic's serve with an improbable backhand drop shot that skimmed the net. With the crowd on her side, Robinson put away the match with a forehand volley, then waded through a throng of autograph-seekers.
Earlier, a woman held out a Family Circle Cup program with a picture of Serena Williams on the cover for Sharapova to sign.
"Sorry about Serena," Sharapova said as she scrawled her name. "That's all right, we know who she is," the fan replied.
Fairly soon, more fans may know who Maria and Shadisha are, too.