Perils ahead as Sharapova progresses

It was not hugely apparent yesterday, but great dangers lie ahead for the latest of tennis golden girls, Maria Sharapova.

A 6-4, 7-5 defeat of Amy Frazier leads her into a quarter-final with Ai Sugiyama and, further ahead, possibly a semi-final encounter with the 1999 champion Lindsay Davenport. Both hold more threat than Sharapova's opponent yesterday.

Yet it is not sportsfolk the Russian has to worry about. She should fear the apparent friends dressed in bow ties, braces and exotic spectacles, the advertising and marketing lions who have already circled the 17-year-old.

Sharapova signed with IMG Models last year and will increasingly find sharper practitioners than Frazier requesting her time and further testing a resolve to concentrate singly on tennis.

Sharapova is already box office and the cause is not wholly dependent on her swiftly improving tennis. Long-limbed, 6ft-tall presentable young women have an agenda set for them.

The girl also comes with a pretty story. Sent from Siberia, which is probably the right direction in which to be travelling, she arrived with her father, Yuri, in Florida as a seven-year-old with $700 and a desire to succeed. The young Sharapova took board and lodging at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy at Bradenton, and survived long periods of loneliness. She felt like crying, but resisted it. The teenager likes to think of herself as a strong character.

So it was on Court No 1 yesterday that the lenses from the photographers' pit all pointed in the same direction from the first point. Like twitchers in a hide, they were there for only one shot.

That is not to say there was nothing arresting about Frazier. There is a history of melanomas in her family, and a consequence is that the woman from St Louis slaps on a foundation layer of sun block factor 30 from the eyes downwards, half an hour before every match and then applies another just before she goes out. It is a necessity which has left her with a troglodyte complexion.

This was the American's 16th Wimbledon and 62nd Grand Slam, the most among regular active players. This Frazier is another long-running American serial.

You do not survive this long without acquiring a certain amount of savvy and the 31-year-old - the oldest remaining player in the draw against the second youngest - opened up a 4-2 first set lead with a flurry of clever angles. But then the double faults, and there were to be 12 of them, started kicking in. Frazier lost four games on the trot, culminating in a double on set point.

Sharapova was able to relax. She stopped slapping herself on the thigh and also dispensed with her noises on shot, which are more smoker's wheeze than grunt. The Russian likes to compose herself at the back of the court, lingering near the netting with an almost indecent absence of haste. She clenches her fist after winning big points, as if embarking on a game of one potato, two potato.

Sharapova acknowledges that she has yet to grow into her antelope frame, but the robustness is gradually coming. "I've been working on that in the off-season like crazy because it's the one thing I think can improve my game tremendously, getting stronger physically, being able to last two weeks at a Grand Slam, as now I'm in the second week," she said. "I'm feeling very good. Physically, I'm feeling a lot stronger."

Mentally she is no blancmange either. Sharapova stepped outside her cocoon only once yesterday, when sport was over and she could blow kisses to the four corners of No 1. It was another small payment on the emotional investment of her parents. She aims to clear the debt as soon as possible but professes no pressure to do so.

"I know that my parents made a lot of sacrifices in my life and they always try to do the best for me," Sharapova said. "At moments like these I can return them with favours. That's what they wanted me to do in life.

"There is no pressure. Who has an opportunity in life like I do right now at the age that I am? If I feel that I have too much pressure, I'll leave. I'm 17 years old. What do I have to lose in this world?"


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