Can she twist the plot this time?

Despite being the defending champion, Maria Sharapova may not be the overwhelming favourite. Last year she was unencumbered by the fear of failure but now the consequences of an early round loss could be mortifying, writes VIJAY PARTHASARATHY.

FAIRYTALES are best lived once, for their charm is limited to the first strike. Sequels very often threaten to bomb at the box-office because the novelty is missing; so Part II had better have something spectacular going for it. `Ever after.... ,' as a consequence, is a territory usually left unexplored.

Maria Sharapova gets the extra-special feeling at Wimbledon and would want to win on the hallowed turf as many times as possible.-CLIVE BRUNSKILL/GETTY IMAGES

In Maria Sharapova's case, however, it is inevitable that we should want to penetrate the ambiguity beyond those decidedly corny dots. Winning Wimbledon at 17 was a climax of sorts; and yet, in another sense, it was merely the beginning. Viewer fatigue, it appears, at the moment, is the last thing on anyone's mind: the public can't seem to get enough of her talent, her pout, her giggle, her teenage brand of oomph. Already a whole year has passed since the lanky lass collapsed delightedly onto the Wimbledon turf on her knees, palms struggling to conceal her gaping, disbelieving mouth; but the image of Goldilocks, standing impatiently on Centre Court, trying in vain to get through to her mother back home over the cell phone refuses to fade. After all, everybody loves a sentimental champion.

Sometimes it's easy to forget that she's only 18, she's still a kid — one who would like nothing better than curling up with a Pippi Longstocking storybook. Sharapova's own story doesn't so much take on the antiquated flavour of Cinderella, as it does the more contemporary feel of The Princess Diaries: ordinary teenager transplanted from a life of suburban boredom to an adult world revolving around stifling responsibilities and expensive indulgences. But a happy ending to this story is still, if not completely out of sight, slightly out of focus.

"Wimbledon is the best tournament in the world. It just gives you that extra-special feeling and I want to win it as many times as I can," Sharapova says. But it's impossible to guess if Sharapova can repeat history this year at the All-England Club, where, as always, the biggest spectacle in tennis gets under way in the coming fortnight. To put it straightfacedly, there is a twist in the plot: her main rivals are back in business. Last time around, Sharapova thrived in the absence of serious competition. Admittedly it was no fault of hers; nevertheless, the field wasn't particularly deep in 2004. Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters were sidelined throughout the season due to injury, while Serena Williams, whom she overcame in the final, was returning from an injury layoff. Post-Wimbledon, Sharapova carried on to win the WTA year-ender, and even if her achievements seemed somewhat amplified in the vacuum, they were still pretty impressive.

"It was a pretty amazing year. I look at what has happened and I can't quite believe it," she says. "But it is real, the statistics are there to prove it, and I have to keep moving on, appreciate everything and try to improve."

Serena Williams will look to avenge her defeat in the 2004 final.-MIKE HEWITT/GETTY IMAGES

The Russian has retained a measure of consistency in her performances so far this season, by reaching the semis in Melbourne (where she lost a close one against Serena) and the quarters in Paris (where Henin overcame her easily on her way to the title). On grass, she will be a tough opponent to run into primarily on account of the powerful serve and whippy groundstrokes. Sharapova is a rhythm player and if, in particular, she is able to get those first serve rockets firing, her opponents will find it near-impossible to break her.

What Sharapova lacks is speed. Both Clijsters and the diminutive Henin, finalist in 2001, are far quicker on their feet than the at-times gawky Sharapova, while Serena could, in a slugfest, potentially out-hit her. Also, as Pam Shriver points out, Henin's gorgeous single-handed backhand has far more variety, and is unlikely to falter while retrieving Sharapova's low-percentage, net-kissing returns; thus inviting the unforced error by forcing Sharapova to play that extra shot.

Sharapova might arrive in London as defending champion and the world's second-ranked player, but, by no stretch, is she the outright favourite. Last year she was unencumbered by the fear of failure; this year, the consequences of an early round loss could be mortifying. Boris Becker once remarked of his 1986 Wimbledon performance: "This was a bigger achievement than winning for the first time at 17 in 1985, because there was a lot more pressure on me when I came back as defending champion. Handling that kind of tension at 18 isn't the easiest thing in the world, and I'm sometimes amazed I managed to pull it off."

Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne are far quicker on their feet than Sharapova.-JED JACOBSOHN/GETTY IMAGES

Clearly, the Russian has a hard act to follow. But the 18-year-old has one thing going for her: an astonishingly sane head on her shoulders. Displaying extraordinary maturity for a child-woman thrust on the road to accelerated adulthood, she has not allowed the hype buzzing around her to interfere with her career: clearly she is determined to learn from countrywoman Anna Kournikova's mistakes. At the same time, she is determined not to let her focus take over her existence.

"I don't consider tennis my life. If I was not enjoying it I would not be here. It is my career and I enjoy it but a lot of other things are more important to me than tennis," she says with the wisdom of an 18-year-old going on 80. "Health and family are the most important things in my life."

Quite endearingly, though, she can also behave her age when she talks about how tennis takes a lot of time; when she says she has five more credits to get until she finishes high school — "Right now I am only doing mathematics and I have a deadline to finish it."

Or, when she recounts what she did after suffering a depressing straight sets loss to Henin at Roland Garros: "I drank hot chocolate at Angelo's, which is the most amazing hot chocolate in the world, and after that had a really nice dinner. It was fun being a tourist in Paris."