Advantage Sharapova, reluctant starlet who became a contender

Two Russians, two different paths to the All England. Tim Glover reports

To declare that the Russians are coming is a bit passé. The Reds are not under the bed, they're in it. The seedings for Wimbledon are full of them, and include at No 2 Anastasia Myskina, the hammer of Paris, and at No 13 Maria Sharapova, the sickle of Birmingham.

To declare that the Russians are coming is a bit passé. The Reds are not under the bed, they're in it. The seedings for Wimbledon are full of them, and include at No 2 Anastasia Myskina, the hammer of Paris, and at No 13 Maria Sharapova, the sickle of Birmingham.

The former is nearly 23 years of age which, in the world of women's tennis, is going on for senior citizenship, and the latter is six years her junior. Both believe they can go all the way at the All England Club, which is traditionally short of a serious English female presence.

Parents throughout Russia have been quick to appreciate that the professional tennis circuit can be a goldmine and therefore a lot more attractive than the salt mines of Siberia, a territory which used to be Sharapova's old stamping ground.

Anastasia, having just become the French Open champion, has hit the big time; Maria, having recently won the DFS Classic in Edgbaston, is threatening to do the same. They are not, however, products of a similar system. Anastasia was born and lives in Moscow, and a highlight of her career was representing Russia in the 2000 Olympics. A clay-court specialist, she is coached by her German former boyfriend Jens Gerlach.

Maria was aged five when she was taken to a tennis exhibition in Moscow at which Martina Navratilova, then in her mid-thirties and a multimillionairess who had left the Eastern Bloc for America, was doing her pied piper bit. "There were thousands of kids there," Maria said. "Martina told my dad that I had a lot of talent. You have got to start somewhere, and that's where we started. At five I had no idea who Martina was and I didn't know anything about tennis. I really couldn't have cared less.''

Two years later, Maria was transported to Florida, and it has been sunshine and orange juice most of the way since then. This year she has won nearly $300,000, a lot of money for a teenager who can't vote but mere pocket money compared with the sums eagerly anticipated by her management company, IMG.

The world, for the girl whose favourite film is Pearl Harbor, is her oyster bed. Maria has a lot more going for her than a strong serve and a very impressive forehand that would fell an ox. She could stalk a catwalk. Along with Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia, she is at the crest of the new wave of glamour pusses who can murder a tennis ball and simultaneously lure photographers into a bidding war.

This is not a new phenomenon, and there are lessons to be learned. Like Maria, Anna Kournikova, the blonde bombshell from Florida via Moscow, began playing tennis at the age of five, and she too ended up at the academy of the American coach Nick Bollettieri.

The difference is that Maria is a genuine contender who, in the space of a year, has advanced more than 80 places into the world top 20. She may not be aware that DFS are a company who manufacture furniture, but she knows she has a shot at Wimbledon where, in the first round, she plays a qualifier.

At Edgbaston she won her third WTA singles title, wearing down Tatiana Golovin, her 16-year-old opponent, 4-6 6-2 6-1 in a battle of the baseliners. Golovin is yet another Muscovite by birth who spent her childhood in Florida, although she has now taken French nationality.

Both Anastasia and Maria felt they could afford to withdraw last week from the grass-court tournament at East- bourne. Last Wednesday they bumped into each other at Wimbledon, where they had been practising. "I congratulated her on her victory in the French,'' Maria said. "She's a very nice girl and we get on very well. I'm more comfortable talking to the European girls than the American girls but I always try to be nice to everyone. I'm not one-sided.''

In between practice Maria, a high-school pupil in Florida, caught up with her English studies, watched Russia lose in Euro 2004 and, of course, went shopping. "Come on,'' she laughed. "This is London.''

She laughs a lot, but it would be a surprise if she didn't. The West End must roll out the red carpet when it knows the tennis girls are in town. Talk about disposable income...

Twelve months ago, Maria got to the semi-finals at Edgbaston and then survived to the second week of Wimbledon. "There's a lot more to come,'' she said. "I've got a long career ahead of me and I've got to keep a cool head.

"I'm a totally different player to last year. I've made a big breakthrough. I have learnt so much playing against different players. I'm more experienced and I'm stronger. I can compete at a higher level and perform better. I'm very confident and grass suits my game. A little power definitely helps, but you also have to have a brain.''

More laughter. Can the Kate Moss of the tennis circuit win Wimbledon? "Yes, definitely. Why not? I feel very good. I never enter a tournament thinking I'm going to lose.''

Maria wasn't aware that she had been made No 13 seed. "I wasn't paying attention,'' she said. "It's none of my business.'' Had she been born in Surbiton rather than Siberia, would she have become a champion in waiting? Probably not. "Tennis is very big in Russia,'' she says. "When I go back I see many clubs and they are very busy, very full of little kids.''

And they have a number of role models to look up to, something which escaped Sharapova. "I never watched tennis on TV,'' she said. "I wasn't a big fan of anyone. I never admired anyone and I never looked up to anybody. I don't know why.'' And she let out another laugh. Happy days.

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