Hail Maria, full of grace

Booed in Paris and no longer world No 1, the girl crowned queen of SW19 four years ago might be expected to view this year's tournament with trepidation. Not a bit of it, she tells Ian Herbert

Have a mere three summers passed by since Maria Sharapova, the girl with the ponytail and the gold earrings which glittered in the sunshine, was catapulted into the tennis firmament by winning Wimbledon at the age of 17? The comparisons, after she overcame Serena Williams, were with Lottie Dodd and other young stars whose hallowed company she joined. Now, as Sharapova sashays into a room near the All England club she still looks like what, in any another walk of life, she would be: a newly turned 21-year-old for whom everything still lies ahead.

Getting the key to the door no longer signifies youthfulness in tennis, though. If the American-domiciled Russian sticks to the Justine Henin retirement plan then her career is half-over already. As she talks of the two weeks to come, with Ana Ivanovic (all of seven months her junior) and Jelena Jankovic ahead of her in the seedings, she is beginning to sound faintly like the old stager.

"There's a younger generation coming up that wants to be No 1 in the world," says Sharapova, who could have been forgiven for thinking that she would be holding the position coming into the tournament she cherishes like no other, having climbed back to that lofty place briefly, after winning the Australian Open so thrillingly in January. However, her unceremonious French Open quarter-final defeat to a fellow Russian, Dinara Safina, saw Ivanovic and Jankovic leapfrog her into first and second place respectively.

"They are all challenging you," Sharapova says, clearly fired up by Jankovic's recent prediction that she and her fellow Serb are destined to dominate the women's game. "If you lose early in the tournament while they're still winning you're back on the [practice] court and working to beat them. It's great and it's a challenge and that's what I love about tennis."

Yet tennis has been a hard game for Sharapova to love at times in a difficult past 18 months. First came a right-shoulder injury which forced her to miss a fair chunk of last year. In her attempt to make up for the lost time, she has played more games in the past six months than she did in all of 2007. She had travelled 50,000 miles before March was out: from Hong Kong to Melbourne, to a much-awaited Fed Cup debut for Russia in Tel Aviv, to Doha, to Dubai, to Indian Wells. Finally, she put in an appearance at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami. Shattered by the efforts which preceded it, she left her rackets at home, saying she would not risk more physical toil.

Then came that painful defeat in Paris, where she was beaten and booed off court for a second successive year – booed, it seemed, for shrieking while playing her shots. It is hardly surprising that she decided to head straight back to the home comforts of California after that. She subsequently opted out of the Edgbaston Wimbledon warm-up event, in which she has prospered in recent years.

"It hurt for a few hours," Sharapova says of the defeat at Roland Garros, where being rich and glamourous and sounding American doesn't seem to go down too well with the paying public. "But once I got on the plane I was pretty much gone and once I was home it was just a new day. Sometimes losses take longer [to recover from] than others but if it's meant to be, it's meant to be. Within 24 hours of losing in Paris I was at home at my coffee shop looking through a cook book wandering what I was going to cook for dinner. I have a very normal life outside of this tennis world that's year-round, and I'm glad of that."

There has also been value, she believes, in kicking out the familiarity of a routine which has tended to see her spend two months or so in Europe during the summers of her career. "I wanted to change things up a little bit," she says. "Sometimes, year after year, it becomes a routine and I wanted to change pace a little bit. To go home. I was in Europe for about four weeks that didn't go as successfully as I wanted. It's easy to say, 'OK, I'm just going to go to the next tournament and try again.' I just felt like I needed a little break from the road and also to recharge my batteries."

There is a sense, in the brevity of her answers when she is pressed on how this break has affected her Wimbledon preparations, that Sharapova knows they have been less than ideal. How long has she had to re-acquaint herself with grass? "A week." Where? "Here, in London."

For all that, Sharapova's chances of placing her hands on the Venus Rosewater Dish again, having failed to make it back to the final since 2004, are arguably greater than ever, given this year's open field. Henin is gone, Jankovic has never made it to the quarter-finals at Wimbledon and Ivanovic has reached only one semi-final, last year, though her top seeding hands her a major advantage this time out. Sharapova is most bookies' favourite, though Venus Williams – her nemesis for the past two years – might again pose the biggest threat.

She might be characterised as a seasoned campaigner, but Sharapova rejects any notion that the young Serbians might in contrast, where Wimbledon is concerned, be as green as the grass they will play on. "Although they are so young they also have a lot of experience behind their back and I won at a pretty young age after all," she says. "In any case, I don't really worry about edges, and who has a bigger edge. It all comes down to your opponent, whoever's across the net on a particular day. My chances are just as good as everybody's but it's all about who takes them. There are only a few chances you are going to be given."

She is speaking after an effortless promotional performance which should put all this talk of fatigue into some kind of perspective. The world's richest sportswoman, a sponsor's dream in so many ways, Sharapova has been known to sit down at courtside after matches and purposefully strap on her Tag Heuer watch. Perhaps she will take to making telephone calls beneath the umpire's chair when Sony Ericsson's Maria Sharapova Phone, the development of which she travelled to Sweden to oversee last month, is in production. This week, a tie-up with the energy drink Gatorade saw her assume the role of school-mistress at Kings College School, before discussing the tournament ahead.

Though the pressure of all this and a schedule which shows no sign of abating – the Olympic Games excite her – there is no doubt that Sharapova is now where she most wants to be. Wimbledon fortnight is, she says, "my favourite part of the year", and though that first and only title is starting to seem a lifetime away there is an unexpected comfort in suddenly seeming to belong to the past as well as the present.

"The fact I'm in the history of Wimbledon is a great fact on its own," she says.


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