Sharapova reaches world summit but loses Russian respect on way

The WTA Tour record states categorically that Sharapova, born in Siberia and raised as a player in Florida since she was nine years of age, yesterday became the first Russian woman to rise to No 1 since the rankings began in 1975. Sharapova, the 2004 Wimbledon champion, supplanted the injured American Lindsay Davenport 30 years after Chris Evert, from Florida, had become the women's first No 1.

According to some of Sharapova's compatriots, however, the only part of her that remains Siberian is a cold shoulder.

When Svetlana Kuznetsova, of St Petersburg, the reigning US Open champion, was asked who was the most popular Russian player worldwide, she grinned and said: "Sharapova of course - but I don't know if you would call her Russian, though. She is more American than Russian. She speaks Russian with a coarse accent."

Sharapova, who once said she learned English by listening to the Spice Girls, was last year involved in a row with Anastasia Myskina, of Moscow. During the Fed Cup finals in Moscow, Myskina, who in June had won the French Open to become Russia's first Grand Slam woman's singles champion, said: "If she [Sharapova] joins our team next season, you won't see me there for sure."

Myskina was particularly upset with Sharapova's father, Yuri Sharapov, accusing him of being disrespectful at the season-ending WTA Championships. "Her father's behaviour is totally incorrect, simply rude," Myskina said. "I don't want to be around people like him."

Sharapova has repeatedly spurned offers to play for Russia in the Fed Cup, saying that her goal this year was to become world No 1. Kuznetsova and the rest of Russia's Fed Cup team have supported Myskina's stance. "I think this year's team has great spirit," Kuznetsova said. "All the girls are very supportive of each other. I don't know if we're going to have the same camaraderie in the future."

Shamil Tarpishev, Russia's Fed Cup captain, has tried to heal the breach, but a Russian Tennis Federation source told Reuters last year: "They [the players] are just jealous of Sharapova. They resent her sudden fame and fortune."

Sharapova has also not competed at the Kremlin Cup in Moscow for the last few years, though last month the organisers announced that she would play in the event in October.

An identity crisis was not on Sharapova's mind yesterday as she celebrated the fulfilment of a long-held ambition. One of the major sacrifices in her career was to leave her mother, Yelena, behind in Russia as she left for Florida with Yuri to be trained at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy.

"It's a dream come true to become No 1 in the world," Sharapova said. "The computer doesn't lie, You have to achieve something to get there and it's been an amazing two years. It's been all about hard work and dedication and the achievement has been amazing."

Although she lost her Wimbledon title this year, losing to Venus Williams, the eventual champion, in the semi-finals, Sharapova has won three WTA Tour titles and has threatened to overtake Davenport for months. Injuries to other leading players, notably Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters, of Belgium, helped clear a path to the summit for Sharapova, though it was only a matter of time before a Russian rose to the top.

Russians dominated the women's Grand Slam championships last year, with Myskina winning the French Open, Sharapova triumphant at Wimbledon, and Kuznetsova taking the US Open. Currently there are eight Russians in the world's top 20.

Two Russian men, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Marat Safin, have reached No 1 on the ATP Tour rankings, and the game in the former Soviet Union has gained ground since tennis returned to the Olympic Games as a medal sport in 1988.

Until recently, Olga Morozova's 1974 defeats in consecutive finals, both against Evert, at the French Open and Wimbledon, were Russia's best results in women's singles at Grand Slam tournaments. It was thought that Anna Kournikova, a media dream, would be the first Russian female to make the breakthrough, particularly after she reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon in 1997, when she lost to the 16-year-old Martina Hingis, the youngest-ever world No 1. But Kournikova was unable to follow through, and injuries contributed to her problems.

A regular in the top 10, Kournikova reached a high of No 8 in 2000, the year she rose to No 1 in doubles. Her career faded in 2003, when she finished the year with a singles ranking of 305.

Kournikova, 24, won £2m in prize-money and millions more from sponsorship and endorsements. Sharapova has already won £2.2m in prize-money, millions more from marketing - and has barely started.

Sharapova told Tennis Life magazine recently that buying shoes was one of her biggest weaknesses, saying she currently had 30 pairs of designer footwear. "I figure that my feet are not going to grow any more," she said, "so if I go bankrupt, I'll still have my shoes."

Reflecting more seriously on her progress, she said: "Sometimes, when I'm sitting at home, I look back at what I was doing two years ago. It just feels amazing, it really does."

Rise of the Russians

Grand Slam Winners

French Open: 2004 Anastasia Myskina beat compatriot Elena Dementieva

Wimbledon 2004: Maria Sharapova beat America's Serena Williams

US Open 2004: Svetlana Kuznetsova beat Elena Dementieva

There are nine Russians in this week's WTA Tour top 25

1 Maria Sharapova

5 Svetlana Kuznetsova

6 Elena Dementieva

9 Nadia Petrova

13 Anastasia Myskina

16 Elena Bovina

19 Vera Zvonereva

20 Elena Likhovtsova

22 Dinara Safina

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