Vaidisova the latest Eastern star to rise

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She is a tall, leggy teenager from eastern Europe with long blonde hair and classic good looks. She has been learning her game for four years at the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Florida. She is coached by her father, hits the ball with formidable power and made a winning start at Wimbledon.

Nicole Vaidisova, who turned 16 only two months ago, is getting used to being mentioned in the same breath as Maria Sharapova. The Czech is already ranked No 33 in the world and the manner of her 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 victory yesterday over Croatia's Jelena Kostanic suggests that comparisons with the Wimbledon champion have only just begun.

Bollettieri reckons Vaidisova is the best prospect of all his 270 current students. She heads a generation of young eastern Europeans who are following in the wake of the Russians who have recently swamped the upper reaches of the women's game.

Ana Ivanovic, a 17-year-old Serb, Marta Domachowska, a 19-year-old Pole, and Sesil Karatantcheva, a 15-year-old Bulgarian, are all starting to make their mark, but the progress of Vaidisova isstartling.

Having become one of the youngest-ever senior champions by winning her first tournament as a professional in 2003, Vaidisova broke into the world's top 100 last year by winning twice on the Women's Tennis Association tour. This year she has reached the third round of the Australian Open, beaten Anastasia Myskina, then the French Open champion, and reached a final in Istanbul, where she lost to Venus Williams.

Vaidisova had lost two of her three matches during the grass-court season, going out in the second and first rounds at Edgbaston and Eastbourne respectively, but went into her senior Wimbledon debut (she played in the last two Wimbledon junior tournaments and reached the quarter-finals last year) in the knowledge that she had already beaten Kostanic at the Australian Open.

However, the 23-year-old Croatian, ranked No 61 in the world, was no pushover. While Kostanic lacks the power to mix it with the very best, she has a clever game, hitting backhands with devilish slice and always on the look-out to play drop shots.

For much of the second set Kostanic had Vaidisova on the run. The Czech repeatedly hurled her racket to the floor in frustration and needed to take full advantage of the "comfort break" she requested before the start of the third set to recompose herself. It worked, Vaidisova breaking serve in the fourth game and rarely looking in trouble on her own serve.

Vaidisova's powerful first serve is a great strength, as are her formidable ground strokes. She hit a succession of winners from both sides of the court, with her forehand, hammered flat and low, a potent weapon. At home on the baseline, she hits with great power and rarely opts to slice.

"I'm not a player who waits for mistakes," Vaidisova said afterwards. "I try to hit a lot of winners. I know I have to work on volleying. Since I was small I've always concentrated on just hitting the ball from the back. I've never really gone to the net."

She added: "I think my game's suited to grass. I have a good serve and I hit the ball pretty hard. It's a surface I enjoy playing on." The Vaidisova family - she has two younger brothers - moved to Florida when her tennis career became serious, though she bases herself in the Czech Republic during the summer. Her father is at Wimbledon, but her mother is back home because her 11-year-old brother, a budding golfer, is playing in a European age-group tournament.

Despite the Florida hothouse background, Vaidisova has not been pushed into the sport. "I didn't grow up watching tennis on TV," she said. "I played tennis for fun. There was no pressure. I did all kinds of sports - basketball, gymnastics, everything. But by the time I was 12 and starting to win bigger tournaments I began thinking of turning professional.

"It's hard work at the academy. Some people are shocked because there's not much else to do other than play tennis, but I'm not one to go partying so it suits me."

Why does she think there are so many successful young east Europeans? "I think it's because of where they come from. I think they have more desire to win. They look on tennis as a good opportunity to go round the world."

And the comparisons with Sharapova? "People always want to compare you with other players and Maria's the one that people compare me with. There's nothing I can do about that. She's a great player and what she achieved last year was awesome, but I wouldn't describe her as my idol. I just don't see many similarities between us.

"We never saw each other much at Bollettieri. She had different schedules and she's two years older. We do our own things and go our different ways."