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Maria Mania Hits The Road

Photo By Susan Mullane By Richard Pagliaro

Grand Slam success is driving Maria Sharapova up the wall — and people are pausing to take notice. The 17-year-old Siberian-born Sharapova honed her tennis skills at the Bollettieri Academy in Bradenton, surged to the peak of her profession with a stirring 6-1, 6-4 triumph over two-time defending champion Serena Williams to win Wimbledon and has now grown to larger-than-life status in New Haven.
The giant Sharapova poster plastered to the side of the Pirelli Building in New Haven is perched prominently next to posters of four-time New Haven finalist Lindsay Davenport and four-time Grand Slam finalist Kim Clijsters promoting the Pilot Pen tournament, scheduled for August 20-28th at the Connecticut Tennis Center at Yale.
The poster of Sharapova is so large she could slam dunk over King Kong if he happened to be in the neighborhood and so eye-catching drivers on adjacent Interstate-95 pause to ponder at the appearance of the Wimbledon champion on the side of the road slowing traffic like a tennis speed trap.
Even when she's not on the court, Sharapova is still a head-turner and the Pilot Pen will be the primary stop on her path to the U.S. Open in August. The eighth-ranked Russian is the tournament headliner and has already made her presence felt in New Haven as the "Maria Mania" marketing campaign has hit New England.
Pilot Pen tournament director Anne Worcester picked Sharapova as the focus of the ad campaign three months ago and the decision paid off as Sharapova won Wimbledon and honored her commitment to the tournament by appearing a New Haven tennis street fair where she hit with kids and signed "Maria Mania" t-shirts and posters.
Even though she looms large over I-95, success hasn't seemed to gone to Sharapova's head despite the fact her head is is big enough to house a Hummer on the promotional poster.
"It's a testament to Maria that she kept her commitment, the week after winning Wimbledon, and still came up to New Haven and did the tennis street fair and did press that day and the next day to promote the tournament," a tournament spokesman told Tennis Week today. "We had an amazing turnout at the tennis street fair. We closed down a street, set up lines for the court and had bleachers, a pro am and she did all the press. (Tournament director) Anne Worcester targeted Maria three months ago as a player who could help promote the tournament obviously getting her is a big coup for us. Every year we get a good field, but this year with the 'Maria Mania' campaign and the fact it's the first year of the U.S. Open Series has been a great help in promoting the tournament."
In addition to Sharapova, Davenport and Clijsters, whose participation in the event depends upon the health of her left wrist which sidelined her for Roland Garros and Wimbledon, other leading players who have committed to competing include: Roland Garros runner-up Elena Dementieva, 11th-ranked Paola Suarez, 12th-ranked Nadia Petrova, 13th-ranked Vera Zvonareva, Magdalena Maleeva, Jelena Dokic, Anna Smashnova-Pistolesi, Dinara Safina, Alicia Molik, Nathalie Dechy, and Sandrine Testud.
"After honoring her long time commitment to come to New Haven to conduct a kids clinic on the heels of her stunning victory at Wimbledon, clearly Maria Sharapova is the story of this year's Pilot Pen." Worcester said. "However, there are many other top-of-the-line tennis stars in Kim Clijsters and Lindsay Davenport, the deep Russian contingent as well as and many well-known veteran 'Pilot Pen' players like Anna Smashnova-Pistolesi, Jelena Dokic and Meghann Shaughnessy. We're gearing up for nine days of tennis of high level tennis on the court and a multitude of entertainment events off the court."
The fact that the Athens Olympic Games are scheduled August 15th-22nd — the week before Pilot Pen — means Jennifer Capriati probably won't be back to defend her Pilot Pen title and other Olympic participants including former Pilot Pen champion Venus Williams and No. 1 Justine Henin-Hardenne won't make the trip to New Haven either.
However, there is speculation one of the three tournament wild cards could go Monica Seles. The former No. 1, who has played in a few World TeamTennis events this month, suggested she may enter the U.S. Open, which starts on August 30th, if her chronic foot pain subsides. Should Seles opt to enter the Open it's likely she would play the Pilot Pen as a tune-up tournament.
A total of 14 hours of Pilot Pen Tennis action will be televised nationally on ESPN, ESPN2 and CBS Sports. For information on tickets, travel packages, sponsorships or on how to become a volunteer at the 2004 Pilot Pen, please visit Pilot Pen or call the Pilot Pen Tennis office at (203) 776-7331 or (888) 99-PILOT.
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