Golden girl Sharapova starts title defence with a winning smile

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The Independent Online

Maria Sharapova normally goes on to court with the air of a silent assassin, her face showing no trace of emotion as she prepares for the ruthless task ahead. Yesterday the Wimbledon champion was grinning from ear to ear as she walked into the Centre Court sunshine for the first stage of the defence of her crown.

"I usually don't smile when I go out on the court," Sharapova said after making a winning return to SW19 with a routine 6-2, 6-2 victory over Spain's Nuria Llagostera Vives. "The people were clapping and I was just taking it all in, remembering last year. This is where the magic happened. It was really good to feel that again."

If it took extraordinary mental strength 12 months ago to become the third youngest champion in Wimbledon's 118-year history at the age of 17, coping with the pressures of fame could be the greater test for Sharapova.

The Russian says she has loved every minute of the celebrity that success has brought her and has jumped at the fashion and commercial opportunities that have opened up. Sharapova has developed her own perfume, designed her dress for this year's Championships and walked on to court wearing one of 10 pairs of shoes specially made for her. They are trimmed with 18-carat gold and worth more than £400 each.

"I just need some wings and I feel like I can fly off," she laughed when asked about the shoes. "I've been getting a lot of compliments. But everybody's offering me a safe these days." If any cynics felt Sharapova had been preparing her own ground for the sort of spectacular fall which sport can so often bring, the first point of the second game quickly dispelled any such notion. Llagostera Vives hit a limp second serve which crept meekly over the net, whereupon Sharapova walloped a winning forehand deep into the far corner.

It was a point that summed up the match. At just over 5ft 1in, Llagostera Vives was giving nearly a foot in height to her opponent, yet in other respects the distance between the two could have been measured in light years. Llagostera Vives is ranked No 36 in the world and has beaten Mary Pierce and Vera Zvonareva this year, but the divide between the élite group of leading women and the rest is enormous.

Llagostera Vives, who took only one more game off Sharapova when they met on the 25-year-old Spaniard's favoured clay in the French Open last month, could not cope with the weight of her opponent's ground strokes. Although the Russian struggled to find her range, often hitting long, she also struck a succession of winners from both flanks.

Crucially, the Spaniard never looked like breaking serve. Sharapova hit six aces, was taken to deuce only once in the match and did not have a double fault against her name, despite missing 48 per cent of her first serves.

Sharapova raced into a 3-0 lead and broke again to take the first set 6-2. The second set was a mirror image of the first, Sharapova winning with her first match point when her forehand was hit with such pace that the ball flew up on to the Centre Court roof off the frame of Llagostera Vives' racket.

Power is everything in the modern game and Sharapova has been working on her strength. "I've been doing lots of gym work," she said. "I'm tall and I grew really fast in a short period of time. It took me a while to get used to my body. Strength wise, sometimes I feel like my arm is like a swan's neck, it's so weak. But I'm working on it." Sharapova has had a thigh injury and will surely need to be at full strength over the next fortnight. Her half of the draw looks formidable, although Justine Henin-Hardenne's defeat has removed one potential threat.

The second challenge certainly promises to be tougher than the first as Sharapova next faces Sesil Karatantcheva, who accounted for Venus Williams in the French Open last month. Yesterday the 15-year-old Bulgarian beat Britain's Amanda Janes, who put up a brave fight before going down 7-5, 6-7, 7-5.

The prospect of 18-year-old Sharapova on court against another east European three years her junior is a fascinating one. Who will the crowd support? While there is no doubting Wimbledon's affection for the champion, the fact is that British crowds also love an underdog, which is not a status the Russian will enjoy again. It was noticeable that there was a huge sigh of disappointment when Llagostera Vives double-faulted at 0-3 on game point as the crowd willed her to get into the match.

"Everyone's trying to beat the No 2 player in the world," Sharapova acknowledged. "It's absolutely normal. But I want to beat them as well. I love the competition."

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