Sharapova the sharpshooter

French Open: Fast-maturing Wimbledon champion ignores the trappings of fame to inherit the Williams mantle
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Her Porsche car, diamond accessories and personal perfume are inevitable consequences of Maria Sharapova's Wimbledon victory 11 months ago, but all the signs are that the 18-year-old Russian has not permitted herself to be deflected from what put her on that dollar-festooned pedestal - her tennis.

Her Porsche car, diamond accessories and personal perfume are inevitable consequences of Maria Sharapova's Wimbledon victory 11 months ago, but all the signs are that the 18-year-old Russian has not permitted herself to be deflected from what put her on that dollar-festooned pedestal - her tennis.

Indeed, she emphasised this yesterday after moving into the last 16 at the French Open by defeating another Russian teenager, Anna Chakvetadze, 6-1 6-4 despite being troubled by an ankle sprain which required strapping.

Acknowledging that maturing had, perforce, to become a rapid process following her sensational victory on the All England Club's Centre Court, the US-based Muscovite insisted: "I have been able to handle it. From a very young age a lot of people were expecting a lot from me. But I realised that tennis is my number one priority. I have a lot of different opportunities in my life as well, but I know the balance between those things."

Which is more, you feel, than can be said for the Williams sisters, Serena and Venus. Their domination of the first five years of the new century seems over after the curtain was brought down on Venus here on Friday evening by a 15-year-old Bulgarian who adores the Spice Girls and Queen (the band, not the regent).

With Serena failing to report for Roland Garros duty because of an alleged ankle problem, Venus was required to shoulder the burden alone, and failed dismally, playing poorly and exiting at a sour media conference.

The clear inference is that the Williamses have been irretrievably sidetracked from what made them famous by the welter of other interests they are pursuing. Hence the relevance of Sharapova's statement of intent.

Fame does have its downside, though, as the Russian beauty pointed out. Like her ever-present security people. "I don't like to walk around with people that have to protect me, but now it's become normal, something I've had to deal with. I've always been a pretty independent person and I wasn't comfortable at first. I don't like it when the bodyguards have to push people away. I felt at the beginning I was just too much of a prima donna. But you have to realise that it's just part of the game, it's for your own protection."

The only person Sharapova needed protection from on Court Suzanne Lenglen yesterday was herself. Chakvetadze, a Moscow University student making her French Open debut, was depressingly unable to exert meaningful pressure on the Wimbledon champion's shaky clay-court style after extending the opening game to seven minutes and four deuces. "I'm a lot better on clay than last year," said Sharapova, "but I still don't think that I'm patient enough. I need to realise that I can't go for winners that quickly."

The notorious Sharapova shriek, the sound of someone stumbling across something awful in the woodshed, was rarely in evidence, so sedate was her progress in this third-round match under blue skies in a fashion-statement outfit of dangly earrings, pink visor and pink-trimmed white dress. Next up for Sharapova today is the exotically-named Spaniard, Nuria Llagostera Vives, who hails from that current hotbed of the Iberian game, Mallorca.

Sharapova is on the cusp of ascending to world No 1, a ranking in the possession of Lindsay Davenport, though not for long if her form is anything to go by. The merest puff of adversity seems likely to topple Davenport, who this afternoon must play a whirlwind called Kim Clijsters. The Belgian has come out on top in their last six clashes, and if she makes it seven Sharapova will need to reach the semi-finals here to take over top spot. Easier said than done, since her projected quarter-final opponent is Belgium's other golden girl, Justine Henin-Hardenne, champion here in 2003.

Davenport is the lone American, man or woman, still alive in the singles following the defeat of the Santa Monica blonde, Marissa Irvin, by Russia's US Open champion, Svetlana Kuznetsova, 6-1 2-6 6-0. In sharp contrast, the first four winners off court yesterday were Russians - Sharapova, Kuznetsova, Nadia Petrova and Elena Bovina, guaranteeing them six in the last 16.

Like last year's runner-up, Elena Dementieva, and Elena Likhovtseva, Petrova and Bovina now play each other after Petrova demolished the 18-year-old Israeli debutante, Shahar Peer, 6-3 6-1, while Bovina saw off the Russian-born French hope, Tatiana Golovin, 6-3 7-5.

What she wears seems of as much concern to the dashing Golovin as how she plays. She turned up on Court Central in a bright cerise dress, with matching bandana holding in place her long blonde ponytail. The more business-like Bovina, a leggy six-footer, sported a cap with the brim upturned, Jesper Parnevik fashion, and reduced the home fans to silence by dismissing Mademoiselle Cerise 6-3 7-5.

Henin-Hardenne, on the recovery road with a vengeance these days, clocked up her 20th straight victory by battling back from 0-5 down in the first set to defeat a 22-year-old from Valencia, Anabel Medine Garrigues, 4-6 6-2 6-3. But that road gets rougher and tougher on her body after the best part of a year spent out of action with a debilitating virus and then a knee injury. The Belgian needed treatment on her back during the second-round match against Virginia Ruano Pascal, admitting: "It is a pain I have had for six weeks," and conceded she needed to take a rest. Just how that will be possible with Wimbledon in the wings was not explained, and yesterday Henin-Hardenne sported an oversized plaster on the back of her right leg, intended to lessen pain.

The difficulty she experienced in bending to strike her renowned backhand helped to explain that alarming spell early on, but once the Spaniard's aggression and enthusiasm had been tamed Justine looked more impressive, though perhaps not entirely back to normal. Today's fourth-round match against Kuznetsova will help to tell how much further that unbeaten gallop will go.