Sharp-witted Sharapova picks her way round the Kournikova pitfalls

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The Independent Online

Organisers of the DFS Classic in Birmingham have calculated that this year's edition was attended by a record number of visitors. Dads, in particular, are said to have shown a sudden keenness for the traditionally low-key event. Some feel this was due to the unusually good weather; others believe that the presence of Martina Navratilova in the doubles played its part; most, though, agree that the star attraction was Maria Sharapova.

No wonder. She has just turned 16, but already Sharapova seems to have it all: the game, the temperament, the desire and, yes, the looks. Many would no doubt place those attributes in a different order, but the young Russian is determined to make a name for herself by playing the sport she loves. "My tennis is the most important thing for me," she saidlast week. "In years to come, when I'm a champion, I want people to know me for my tennis, not my looks or even my grunting."

Sharapova's successful run at the DFS Classic came to an end when she lost to Shinobu Asagoe, of Japan, in the semi-finals of the women's singles yesterday. The winner, who prevailed over the Russian 6-2 2-6 7-6, will meet Magdalena Maleeva, in today's final after the Bulgarian third seed beat the second-seeded Eleni Daniilidou, of Greece, 6-3 5-7 6-4 in the other semi-final.

But the fascination with Sharapova is far from over. No sooner had Anna Kournikova suggested that she may not be fit for Wimbledon than the media began their search for a new darling. They quickly settled for Sharapova, a fellow Russian with blonde hair who also grew up at the Nick Bollettieri academy in Florida. "It doesn't bother me what people say or think," she insisted in her American-Russian accent. "It's part of the contract I made with tennis when I decided to become a pro."

Unlike some glamour-pusses, Sharapova is utterly determined to succeed. "I've always wanted to be No 1 in the world," she said. "It's been a dream of mine since I was a little girl and, if I work hard, there is no reason why I can't make it."

Having had to leave Russia at the age of six to receive the necessary coaching, and then been thrown into a dormitory full of teenage girls when she was just nine, Sharapova understands the meaning of commitment. "Most of the early years were tough," recalled the girl who was first spotted by Navratilova in Moscow in the early Nineties, "but it made me and my parents even more determined. It gave me the opportunity to discover myself at a very young age, and that's made me stronger."

Never is that single-mindedness more evident than when Sharapova talks of her equal passion for tennis and academia. Tour commitments mean that she has to complete her high-school diploma by correspondence, doing her homework at the end of every match-day and then sending it to her teachers via email. It is a gruelling schedule, but she is not fazed by it.

"I love my life," said the teenager, whose first racket was a present from a family friend, Yevgeny Kafelnikov. "I love learning about new things, and I feel lucky that I can do this and play competitive tennis at the same time."

One wonders whether Sharapova, an A-grade student whose best subject is biology, never yearns to be a "normal" teenager. "Why? The alternative," she pointed out, "would be to go to school, go home, do my homework and then call my friends. I know what I'd rather be doing."

While there is no doubt that playing tennis has given Sharapova a freedom that most of her peers can only dream of, some some age restrictions remain in place. In order to avoid burn-out, the authorities have decreed that girls can only play a limited number of senior WTA events a year. "That frustrates me," she said, "because there are times when tournament directors ask me to play and I have to say no. I would like to see some changes."

One of the numerous subclauses states that Sharapova can only accept three wild-cards this year. Having already taken two, it is easy to understand why she hesitated before finally accepting Wimbledon's offer of another when there are still six months of the season left. She always said she would have been happy to go through qualification at Roehampton this week but now her dream of "being at Wimbledon" is about to become reality.

Sharapova is by no means the finished article. Her second serve will be exposed by the stronger field at Wimbledon, and her reluctance to move to the net may play into opponents' hands. That said, she has already shown enough skill and desire to make it understandable why the leaders of the women's game, which has been dominated by the Williams sisters and only intermittently lit up by Justine Henin-Hardenne, are so keen to latch on to her appeal. "It can get a bit crazy, but I don't pay too much attention to all the stuff going on around me," she said. "The court is where it matters."