- The Washington Times - Monday, June 28, 2004

WIMBLEDON, England — Hardly a nobody. Not quite a somebody.

A year ago, Maria Sharapova came to the All England Club as just another forehand with a ponytail, an unseeded up-and-comer WTA Tour officials brought back to the cramped cubicles of the press workroom for an impromptu meet ‘n’ greet.

This time around, introductions aren’t needed.

Behind a powerful, aggressive game that belies her teen idol looks, the 17-year-old Russian has emerged as both a potential crossover star and a dark-horse contender in a depleted Wimbledon draw.

Seeded No.13, Sharapova rides an eight-match grass court win streak into today’s fourth-round contest against No.31 seed Amy Frazier. She has yet to drop a set in the tournament, surrendering a single break point while dispatching her previous three opponents in an average of 60 minutes a match.

A victory would place Sharapova in her second major quarterfinal this season, further washing away her rapidly eroding anonymity.

“I don’t want to think about this is my year, this is not my year,” Sharapova says after a third-round drubbing of Daniela Hantuchova. “I know I want to win this tournament. If I don’t do it this year, I want to do it next year. I just want to do it.”

As recently as last summer, such bravado would have been misplaced if not downright absurd. Sharapova entered Wimbledon as a neophyte wild card, ranked No.88 in the world and better known for her Anna Kournikova-ish mien than her on-court prowess.

A surprising run to the fourth round, however, gave the London tabloids a legitimate story to go with the adoring pictures. Since then, Sharapova has made good on her oft-stated goal to be much more than a pretty face, rising from No.88 to No.15 in the WTA rankings.

In January, Sharapova reached the third round of the Australian Open, losing to eventual French Open champ Anastasia Myskina. She followed that with a quarterfinal appearance at Roland Garros and a tournament win in Birmingham, England — giving her three more career titles than the aforementioned Kournikova.

Sharapova credits her surging play to increased experience and working with coach Robert Lansdorp, who is based in Southern California, across the country from her family’s Florida home.

“I know that whenever I’m training in the offseason or I was training in the clay court season, I knew that I had to work hard,” she says. “Good things would happen if I did so. And I’ve been having a lot of fun. When you have fun out there, plus you’re smart on the court, those things add up.”

The sum total couldn’t come at a better time for the WTA. With Martina Hingis in early retirement, Kournikova mulling the same, the Williams sisters stricken by inconsistency and Jennifer Capriati not getting any younger, the tour has lost much of the frothy celebrity appeal that made it a late-1990s pop culture phenomenon.

Enter Sharapova, whose Noxema Girl appearance could score big with a new generation of fans. The evidence? In characteristic understatements, YM magazine dubbed Sharapova one of the “coolest girls in America,” while Teen People named her one of 20 teens who will change the world. Sharapova also signed a contract with IMG models last November and is featured in the WTA’s latest marketing campaign.

While Sharapova’s blond hair and nationality have inspired a bevy of inevitable Kournikova comparisons — both players worked with famed coach Nick Bolletteri — she bristles at the fawning suggestion.

At 13, Sharapova responded to the nickname of “Baby Kournikova” by noting it was “hard to admire” a player who hasn’t won a tournament; more recently, she brushed off a reporter’s query with a dismissive “that’s an old question.”

“Whenever I go on court, I just think about my tennis performance,” Sharapova says. “I don’t think about what I’m gonna look like or what people are thinking about the marketing side. I’m here to play tennis, and I’m not here to think about anything else.”

Unlike some of the Kourni-klones before her — Hantuchova comes to mind — Sharapova seems to value grit over glamour. When she was 2, her family fled the western Siberian town of Nyagan to avoid the radioactive fallout from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant meltdown; at age 6, Sharapova left Russia altogether, landing in Florida to train at the Bolletteri academy.

While Sharapova’s father, Yuri, accompanied her to the United States, her mother, Yelena, failed to secure a visa. The family was split up for nearly two years. Sharapova remembers arriving at the Miami airport with Yuri, $700 to their name.

“The move was an amazing sacrifice,” Sharapova says. “You either win or you lose. It’s a 50/50 chance that you’re going to play on Centre Court at Wimbledon a few years later. You just never know what can happen.

“I’m a tough girl. I don’t want to give my opponents any chance. I just fight for every ball because I know that every ball is important. And it shows.”

Does it ever. Given to fist pumps and frequent grunts, Sharapova plays the aggressive, attacking tennis that has become de rigueur in the WTA’s top 10, one baseline bash at a time.

Though she will never be mistaken for, say, Serena Williams, Sharapova has grown to 6 feet tall since last year and sports broad shoulders atop her willowy frame — which in part explains her 14 aces at Wimbledon, some coming as fast as 114 mph.

Against Hantuchova, Sharapova won 93 percent of her first serve points and even hit a left-handed forehand on her backhand side for a crosscourt winner. Afterward, she was stonefaced.

“Sometimes, I do want to smile, but then I think to myself, ‘Maybe if you do smile, maybe your concentration will go off a little bit,’” Sharapova explains. “I don’t want to let that happen.”

Nor can she afford it. For all her recent success, Sharapova remains winless against the tour’s top players, a combined 0-6 against Capriati, the Williamses, Kim Clijsters and French Open champ Anastasia Myskina.

Perhaps fortuitously, No.5 seed Lindsay Davenport is the only headliner left in Sharapova’s side of the bracket following upset losses by Myskina and Venus Williams.

“[Sharapova] has a good chance now because the section of the draw is wide open,” Hantuchova says. “But I would still think that Serena [Williams] is the favorite.”

Without doubt. Still, Sharapova isn’t intimidated. Ambition like hers needs no introduction.

“[A title is] my goal,” she says. “And I’m here. I’m here to win it.”

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