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July 5, 2004

For Sharapova, Everything Is Going as Planned


ONDON, July 5 — Maddeningly, predictably, it was sunny and dry at Wimbledon today, the day after the beleaguered tournament somehow managed to end on schedule between the raindrops.

There were even more of those than usual this year, as the tournament was forced to remain open on the first Sunday and forced to give full refunds to its customers for the two days during the first week that were washed out completely.

But in the end, not even the English were much interested in talking about the weather. They were much more interested in Maria Sharapova, the tall, slender Russian teenager and part-time model who dragged women's tennis out of its season-long doldrums and became a star by defeating Serena Williams in Saturday's final without the slightest hint of self doubt.

It was a sensational, unforgettable coming-out party, and on Sunday night she arrived at another one, sharing a table at the Wimbledon champions ball with the men's winner Roger Federer, accepting membership to the All England Club and giving a brief speech hearkening back to that far-away time two years ago when she was invited to this same soiree as the Wimbledon junior champion.

At 17, she was still eligible to play the junior tournament this year, but those days of less floodlit challenges are gone for good, and today, despite a lingering cold, this 21st-century globetrotter who represents Russia but resides in Florida was off to New York for her latest, but hardly last, round of television appearances.

Welcome to celebrity. "Now a different life is starting for her; let's see how she's going to handle that," said Boris Becker, the German who burst from obscurity to win the Wimbledon men's title at 17 in 1985.

The advantage that Sharapova could have over someone like Becker is that she has spent much of her adolescence preparing for just such an eventuality. Her representatives with International Management Group have been planning for it, too, and a team is already in place to market (one hopes the word isn't "milk`) the Sharapova phenomenon for whatever it might be worth. "Until now, we've been saying a lot of no," said her agent Max Eisenbud, "because we were thinking that something like this could happen."

Sharapova's coach, Robert Lansdorp, has been around tennis parents long enough to have some concerns that Sharapova's emergence could start a new trend. "Now everybody will go to Siberia and have their child born there," Lansdorp said, laughing. "You know how crazy some tennis people are."

But according to Lansdorp, the secret to the success of his longtime pupil does not lie simply in her Siberian birthplace or the hardships she experienced after her father Yuri decided to take her from Russia to the United States with limited means when she was only 7 years old.

"I'm not a psychiatrist, but I don't necessarily think having a very tough life is going to make you a champion," Lansdorp said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. "I think it's just an in-born kind of quality, the sort of mental toughness that Maria has. I think she is determined to make something out of herself in everything she does."

Lansdorp, who has worked regularly with Sharapova since she was 11, has helped shape the games of several Grand Slam champions, including Pete Sampras, Tracy Austin and Lindsay Davenport. Sharapova's tenacity reminds Lansdorp of Monica Seles and of Austin, who were both 16 when they won their first major titles.

"Tracy was almost the same," Lansdorp said. "They want it so bad. They fight so hard. They are so basically relaxed in the confidence to be able to do it."

"To be honest, this came a little bit earlier than I expected. Maria's development was good, but she was struggling with some knee problems two years ago. Her serve didn't have the strength. She was growing quickly. I always said that she was going to be great, but it probably wasn't going to be until she was 18 and a half or 19. But she just pulled herself together."

It helped that Sharpova faced two big, relatively flat hitters in the last two rounds in Davenport and Williams instead of more subtle opponents, such as the absent No. 1 player Justine Henin-Hardenne of Belgium, who are more prone to changing rhythm and tactics and to hitting crisply chipped backhands that stay low on the grass.

But even if Sharapova was playing against the pace she relishes, she still required the courage and the faith in her instincts to hit the winners and the second serves on the biggest stage imaginable. She had been forthright about her intention to win Wimbledon. It simply came a year or two or three before she expected it, but she had no difficulty quickly readjusting her sights in the wake of her upset victory. "I mean I thought Wimbledon was just my dream to win, and now, of course, my goal is to be No. 1 in the world," she said.

For now, she will have to settle for being No. 8 and for being in considerable demand, with media, sponsors, would-be new friends and tournament promoters vying for a piece of her life, even though Sharapova's schedule is still restricted by W.T.A. rules because she has not yet turned 18. "To tell you the truth, I know that things will start coming up, many more people will want to start getting involved, but I just want to keep my head cool," she said, explaining that she intended to let her advisers and father manage those issues.

For now, the plan is for her to play later this month in the California tournaments in Carson and San Diego and then take time off to prepare for the United States Open with Lansdorp. Wherever and whenever she plays, interest will be high. "It's great for women's tennis," said Martina Navratilova. "It's the best thing thing could have happened to us really.And obviously it's great for her."

Navratilova does not recall spotting Sharapova when she was 5 years old at a Moscow clinic and suggesting that Yuri take her to Florida and the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, now owned by IMG. "I mean I've said that about a bunch of kids," Navratilova said. "You don't recognize them 10 years later."

There was plenty of poignancy in the fact that minutes after Sharapova came of age by finishing off Williams, Navratilova was sitting in the interview room with her doubles partner Lisa Raymond after losing a semifinal that the 47-year-old Navratilova insists was her last match at Wimbledon.

"She's just been very focused on what she wanted to do, extremely commited to her cause, and she loves to play," Navratilova said of Sharapova.

"That's the best part. She wants to be out there. She doesn't want to be anywhere else. You see that. Yes, she's got her father that's behind her.

"But she's there because she wants to be there, not because he wants her to be there."

Tennis parents do have a disturbing history of living vicariously through their children's achievements, and Yuri Sharapov has clearly sacrificed a great deal to advance his daughter's tennis, leaving his culture and his comfort zone (and, for two years, his wife Yelena) to take Maria to Florida.

But Lansdorp and Bollettieri, who have seen plenty of overbearing, overwrought tennis parents, are complimentary of Yuri. "His background in tennis is very limited, but he's listened," said Bollettieri, who serves as an advisor to the family.

"Some think he's a little gruff and rough, but they have a great father-daugher relationship," Lansdorp said. "He's always been good to me; he never gives me a hard time. He comes to the court and picks up balls during practice and does not interfere."

"I don't know some of these other people; I don't know Mary Pierce or Jelena Dokic," Lansdorp said, referring to players whose fathers acted as coaches and were both banned at one stage from the tour for belligerent behavior. "But I tell you one thing. Nobody pulls strings on Maria. Not IMG. Not anybody. She is going to do what Maria is going to do."

Lansdorp is convinced that what she is going to do is get better. "She's not someone who's going to say, `Robert, sorry, I don't want to hit 50 backhands down the line because I just won Wimbledon,' " he said. "That's not Maria. She wants more."
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Ruud said:
How On Earth Can Something Tennis Make The Front Page Of The New York Times?
Slow news day today (being the day we are observing July 4th in the US?). Just kidding! Really, you knew she was going to make the front page because she upset the defending champion, among other things. Venus, Serena and Jennifer all made the front page of the NYT when they won their first Slam. In fact, Venus was on the front page when she was 10.

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I think Sharapova's win made the front page of major newspapers in many countries.

Two English language newspapers in my neighbouring country both have her Wimbledon win on their front page.
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