Sh... don't needle Nicole with Maria comparisons

Vaidisova plays down parallels with a court princess
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The Independent Online

It's a bit like the Fawlty Towers sketch, really. Mention the name of Maria Sha-rapova and Nicole Vaidisova's eyes narrow, the American-accented flow of chatter stutters to a halt for a second or two and she assembles the mental barricade to deal with the question she dislikes more than any other.

The 17-year-old from Prague does not, repeat not, wish to be told that she resembles Sharapova or that she is following in the Sharapova footsteps, or that she is Sharapova Mark II. So does the comparison grate a bit, then, Nicole? "It doesn't bother me," she insists unconvincingly. "I always have the same answer to this question. I am just waiting for people to get tired of the same answer to the same question."

So here we go with that same answer, then. "She [Sharapova] is definitely a great champion but we are totally different people. I do my own things, she does hers, that's about it."

You don't dream about winning Wimbledon? A shake of the head. "I don't want to follow her, just do my own thing, concentrate on that. Maria is Maria and I am Nicole. Sure we both went to Florida to train at Bollettieri's at a similar age and we are both tall, but that's about it."

There could not be clearer indication of a nascent rivalry here, though the two have yet to play each other on the women's tour. They are being wheeled into position for this conflict by rival sponsors - Sharapova is Nike, Vaidisova Reebok - and by ever-hovering agents muttering into their mobiles, since there are many dollars to be reaped promoting tall, beautiful blondes who can play tennis rather well.

Sharapova has already cracked the system by winning Wimbledon two years ago. No more Grand Slams since, but they will come. For Vaidisova, the path is clear, but as yet no pot of gold that winning one of the four majors would bring. There is time, of course, since Nicole attained her 17th birthday only in April this year, and she came close enough to a place in last month's French Open final to set those agent mobiles buzzing, having eliminated the home favourite and world No 1 Amélie Mauresmo and the three-time Wimbledon champion Venus Williams in successive rounds before blowing a big third-set lead over Svetlana Kuznetsova in the semi-finals.

"It was a great tournament for me," she said in flawless English. "I was very close, which is a good sign I can go all the way. It offered me more good lessons about winning against the top players. Playing them is a differ-ent game, and it's also a different game to beat them. I have managed that a little bit."

Vaidisova is currently little-known in this country, but that will change as soon as she steps on to one of the main arenas of Wimbledon, where the TV eye is watching. Having made her debut last summer, reaching the third round, she has yet to be paraded on anything better than Court Two. It should have been Court One and TV on Friday, but as a men's match dragged on she and the Croatian Karolina Sprem were switched to good old Court Two, starting their match at 7.40pm. Two sets and 90 minutes later, Vaidisova marched off into the gloaming, eyeing her place in the fourth round. "Of course I would have loved to play on a main court, but if we had waited to get on we wouldn't have finished before it got dark," she said.

Vaidisova is a baseliner par excellence but not yet a volleyer of note, a purveyor of deep, flat shots to the corners and possessor of great stamina and mental fortitude. Just like others from her Czech homeland, such as Martina Navratilova, Jana Novotna and Helena Sukova. She pays passing tribute to them, but points out: "I was born in Germany [Nuremberg], so Steffi Graf was a great inspiration."

Having taken up tennis at six and shown immediate promise, she moved with her family to the Bollettieri academy in Bradenton, Florida, when she was 10. Whisper it, but that is two years later than Sharapova did. "I am still kinda there," she said, "switching between Prague and Florida, where conditions are great. I am just finishing my high school studies in Prague, so I spend about half my year there."

Though she has now passed the age limit where young players are restricted in the number of tournaments they are allowed to enter, Vaidisova is clearly being wisely counselled about the dangers of the sort of burn-out which has afflicted other teenagers. She arrived at Wimbledon having competed in just 10 events, including Strasbourg, which she won to lift her number of titles to six already - Vancouver and Tashkent in 2004, Seoul, Tokyo and Bangkok last year.

In this respect, though she may not like the comparison, Vaidi-sova is like Sharapova, but not at all like Anna Kournikova, who was stellar at everything except winning tennis tournaments. "I won't play a huge number of tournaments," Nicole claimed. "I don't want to overplay myself at 17, health is my biggest priority."

Which is why she pulled out of the pre-Wimbledon event at Eastbourne. "I was tired after the French, still had a lot of school work to do, so I just took a week off." Since she insists, "I swear to God I haven't seen the draw, don't know who I play now", we can reveal that next up is the Chinese Na Li, with a quarter-final beckoning against the second seed, Kim Clijsters. That first tilt with Sharapova would have to wait for the final.

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