Sharapova's appeal has never been higher - the likeable golden girl is back

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The Independent Online

In Maria Sharapova, says the sport's chief executive, women's tennis has discovered a diamond. Larry Scott's happy thought, uttered at the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour's season's-end championships here yesterday, is closer to the truth than he might imagine, for a diamond's value is matched by its durability and hardness.

As the best-rewarded season of her young life drew to a close yesterday with a semi-final defeat, the 19-year-old Sharapova has demonstrated beyond argument that the nice kid who won Wimbledon two summers ago has developed into an athlete of dazzling skills and commendable toughness not averse to the odd spot of intimidation or playing to the gallery.

For the photo shoot which preceded this eight-woman event, the 6ft 2in Sharapova thrust herself high above the other seven qualifiers by donning four-inch stilettos. And for her opening match Shazza turned out in a lavender number which uncannily mirrored the colour of the indoor court. It was, she asserted later, "a coincidence". The suspicion is that little in her dollar-laden life could be classified as coincidence any more, not since she captured her second Grand Slam, the US Open, in September and embarked on a 19-match winning streak, the longest of the year by any woman. New York was the career turning point, from promise to greatness.

"It seemed a huge burden was lifted off her back when she won the US Open," said a WTA insider. "She is so much more approachable now, once again the friendly girl we knew before she won Wimbledon in 2004. Now you see her walk into the players' lounge whistling, walking her jaunty walk, smiling most of the time. Before she always seemed to be preoccupied with something else."

This glittering emergence has succeeded in edging aside her obsessive father, Yuri. Maria's coach, the American Michael Joyce, now sits a row in front of Yuri Sharapov at her matches, and when the WTA experimented briefly with having coaches alongside players on court, Joyce took on that role. Nor is she any longer under the same roof as Yuri at the family home in Florida. Instead, she spends a lot of time on the other side of the US, at an apartment she bought in Manhattan Beach, California. Thus has independence been established.

Despite damaging her right foot early last month, Sharapova is hammering out exciting, winning tennis just when her leading rivals, exhausted and injured, are yearning for the playing season to end. "I'm healthy, not thinking about protecting some injury," she said on Friday. "My foot is still not perfect, but I'm able to keep it under control. I am a much better player than I was a year ago because I have finally stopped growing and my muscles are building a little bit.

"Because I've won so many matches I'm enjoying myself. I feel good about my game, and that compares well with the middle part of the year, when basically I wasn't playing at all."

Sharapova sells herself short there, since in 2006 she has won five tournaments, the last three in succession, has twice been runner-up and five times a semi-finalist, including Wimbledon and the Australian Open. She sums it up as "a really cool year" and promises: "There are a lot more cherries I'm gonna put on that cake." Named the world's richest female athlete by Forbes magazine a year ago, with total earnings estimated at $24 million (£12.5m), she has done even better this year. "More than any male tennis player," says Scott. "No one has reached that height. From a marketing perspective, Maria is the best female athlete in the world, and also the best known.

"She has had a huge impact on tennis and broken all kinds of barriers. We try to promote her as a successful tennis player first and then a glamorous person with interesting story lines around her beyond that." The combination of being stunningly beautiful and a winner has catapulted Sharapova ahead of everyone. These championships failed to attract the American public when they were staged in Los Angeles for the past three years but they have been pulling crowds in excess of 9,000 every night here. When she won in Linz last month the tournament took the unprecedented step of selling 1,500 standing tickets for her every match, so great was the demand.

Does Maria worry, someone asked her, that more people talk about her body than her tennis? The reply comes swiftly: "I can't really be worried about what people think, I can't control their opinions or their thoughts. That's the least of my worries." What part of your own body pleases you most then, Maria? "My brain," she smiles.

Dismissed as a "passport Russian" by the workaholic male player, Nikolay Davydenko, because she has made the US her home since the age of eight, Sharapova has stilled that sort of criticism by announcing she intends to make her debut in Fed Cup, the international team event, for her homeland next year. So everybody should be pleased with Maria, especially Larry Scott, who has seen some bleak times since taking on the WTA Tour's top job three years ago. Due to announce today that Madrid will be awarded this event again next year, he smiles: "We are going through a golden period right now." The future is gold, the future is Sharapova.

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