Sharapova fires latest shots in Russian revolution

"Ova here, Ova there, the Russians are everywhere" should be the new theme song in women's tennis.

PAUL FEIN

"In a few years, hopefully, the stories won't be about my grunting or my looks, but about me being a great tennis player," Sharapova says.-Pic. CLIVE BRUNSKILL/GETTY IMAGES

"Ova here, Ova there, the Russians are everywhere" should be the new theme song in women's tennis. No, they haven't kicked the Serena and Venus show off the stage quite yet. But just give them a little more time because the Russkies have the numbers.

Russian talent runs so deep that five standouts reached the Wimbledon round of 16 and Anna Kournikova plunged to No. 11 among them. Titleless Anna, who still ranks No. 1 in endorsements (about $15 million a year), website hits and former boyfriend superstars, withdrew from Wimbledon because of a recurring back injury.

Without the alluring woman who launched a thousand bra ad billboards, the tabloid paparazzi focused on a bonafide Anna facsimile: beautiful Maria Sharapova. They better watch out, though, because Maria doesn't crave attention or have an ego the size of Moscow a la Anna. Maria not only finds the tabloids' leering silly but also isn't enamoured with the newspaper that measured her loud grunts with a decibel counter at the DFS Classic in Birmingham.

"In a few years, hopefully, the stories won't be about my grunting or my looks, but about me being a great tennis player," Sharapova says. Aware of past burnout victims, such as Tracy Austin, Andrea Jaeger and Jennifer Capriati, single-minded Sharapova won't be derailed from her goal. "No one is going to push me around," she says. "I know what I want and how to achieve it. I want to be No. 1."

Six years after 16-year-old Kournikova stormed to the Wimbledon semis, tennis' newest "sweet 16" phenom had a June coming out party on the lush lawns of England. At Birmingham, Sharapova qualified and then ousted No. 24 Nathalie Dechy, No. 34 Marie-Gaianeh Mikaelian and No. 15 compatriot Elena Dementieva to reach her first Tour semifinal.

At Wimbledon, where reputations are built and the pressure is greatest, 88th-ranked wild card Sharapova really seized the fortnight. Walloping 100 mph-plus serves and down-the line backhands for winners, she drubbed another fast-rising teenager, American Ashley Harkleroad, 6-2, 6-1 in what the media had dubbed the "Battle of the Blonde Babes." Then she impressively upset 21st-seeded Russian Elena Bovina 6-3, 6-1 and 11th-seeded Jelena Dokic 6-4, 6-4, slamming eight aces, before yet another young Russian, Svetlana Kuznetsova, outlasted her 6-1, 2-6, 7-5.

What makes Sharapova, willowy-thin at 6' and 125 pounds, so appealing is her intense competitiveness and sheer joy of life. She clenches her fist, screams as she whacks balls, and smiles broadly after terrific shots. Like Jimmy Connors, this drama queen doesn't merely play, she performs. After knocking off Dokic, she raised her hands to the sky and blew kisses to the enthused Court 1 spectators.

"I just feel I owe fans a big thank you," she says. "They are important because they root for you and you play a good match for them. If you leave the court without showing respect for them, they might not come back next time."

There's little chance that will happen, according to legendary coach Robert Lansdorp, because Sharapova is destined for greatness. "Maria can go all the way. Potentially, she has the ability to be the best," says Lansdorp, who taught Tracy Austin, Lindsay Davenport and Pete Sampras their championship strokes and has coached Sharapova for the past five years.

"Tracy was the toughest mentally of anyone I've ever had," says Lansdorp.

"But shotmaking goes to Maria. What I like about Maria is her attitude, her desire, the pleasure she has when she makes good shots. The desire to become great shows more with Maria. I love to work with her."

Sharapova, then 11, both amazed and confounded Lansdorp in the beginning. "She was like a nightmare because of all her shots," he recalls. "She could hit a serve right-handed and left-handed. She could hit a forehand either way. It looked like she could do whatever she wanted to do. But she understood the court well. And she had this fight in her to work for every point, which is very important."

Allied with that determination is a fearlessness that Lansdorp believes will take her to the top. Only 13 and competing in her first pro tournament in Florida, Lansdorp remembers a revealing match pitting Sharapova against veteran Dawn Buth. After Sharapova won a first-set tiebreaker and led 4-0 in the second set, Buth rallied to win the set and was on the verge of winning the match.

"Maria saved several match points. She was hitting the ball even harder, even better," says Lansdorp proudly. "There was never any sign she was getting nervous. Right there, I had the feeling Maria was playing like some of my other (top) players, like Tracy. They would never get nervous when the chips were down. They would just fight. Champions have that quality."

If Sharapova reflects the hungry attitude of the new wave of Russian standouts, her improbable saga explains why. The Sharapova story began in the little town of Nyagan in remote Siberia, where Maria was born the daughter of Uri, an engineer, and Yelena. The family moved to Soichi, when she was two, to escape the radioactivity caused by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Sharapova was discovered at age six by the greatest tennis "ova" ever, Martina Navratilova, then playing an exhibition in Moscow. Navratilova told her parents that Maria's tremendous talent could best develop where hers did nearly 30 years ago, in America, the proverbial "land of opportunity."

So Uri and little Maria, only 6, left Yelena behind and used the $900 he had saved up to fly to Miami to pursue their dream. "We had no money in our pocket," Uri told The Maria Sharapova Page website. "I knew no words of English except `to eat' and `to sleep.' "

They journeyed to Bradenton where Uri looked for a job, they shared a bicycle, and Maria quickly adjusted to their new environment. Highly intelligent, she recalled, "I learned English in one month. I told myself I should listen. In the next month I could talk to everyone. I was so happy I could do one thing ... I could talk."

Even better, the prodigy could play so well that after coming to Nick Bollettieri's Academy uninvited, she was enrolled there at age eight. Because of visa problems, Yelena had to wait back home in Sochi for more than two years before they could be re-united. "It was very hard on Maria to be without her mother for so long," Uri said.

Although Maria has resided and practiced at Bollettieri's ever since, she frequently travels across the continent for weeks of two-hour daily coaching sessions with Lansdorp at the South Bay Tennis Center in Torrance, California.

Former President Boris Yeltsin, a tennis lover, helped popularise the sport in Russia after it had been shunned for years by the Communist party as a decadent, bourgeois pastime. The success of Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who gave four-year-old Sharapova a tennis racket she still treasures, and Kournikova further accelerated the Russian Tennis Revolution during the 1990s.

Ironically, Kournikova, who peaked at No. 8 in singles and No. 1 in doubles, and Sharapova, immigrated to the U.S., while other promising Russians left for greener pastures in Europe. Kuznetsova and Marat Safin moved to Barcelona, Spain, to nurture their talent as teenagers.

Kuznetsova, born in St. Petersburg, encountered a common obstacle for Russian players: lack of financial support. "My father, all his life, pays for everything for me," Kuznetsova, now Navratilova's doubles partner, told the Palm Beach Post. "Coaching, tournaments, court time. It's too hard. At home, I can't get sponsorships. I have to travel on my own. You think I get $1 from the Russian (tennis) federation? If you're not from Moscow, forget about it. They didn't help me at all."

Lansdorp also coaches Anastasia Myskina, No. 10 in the world and the top-ranked Russian woman. Vera Zvonareva, a smart counterpuncher, who upset Venus Williams at the French Open. Yet another top-10 prospect from Russia is highly athletic Nadia Petrova. A surprise semifinalist at Roland Garros, Petrova knocked off 2000 champion Jennifer Capriati in a super high-calibre match there.

Sharapova considers herself "totally Russian" and declares that she'll represent her motherland in the Olympics if asked. Even so, she likes different aspects of both countries. "In Russia, I love the culture and the sightseeing. It's really beautiful, especially where I live," she says. "In America, it's great doing the schoolwork online. That makes it easier to travel. The shopping is better in America. There are no big markets in Russia. Here we just go and get food -- everything in the same place -- in your car and drive to your garage and just get out. It's a different lifestyle."

Talking with Sharapova, you soon discover there's very little about her unusual life she doesn't like. When I asked her to describe herself, she replies, "Happy, funny, I'm a fighter, and I'm very classy."

What makes Sharapova smile and laugh so much? "The people around me and the people who believe in me," she quickly answers. "They make me happy and make me laugh. All the moments that I can laugh and be happy are the greatest. That's what keeps me going."

One thing that does bother Sharapova is the controversy created by the loud noises — screams, squeals and shrieks — she emits when she whacks the ball. The umpire in Birmingham asked her to tone it down. A mischievous London tabloid recorded Sharapova's screams at an eardrum-bashing 100 decibels on its infamous grunt-o-meter, far louder than Serena's second-place primal yells of 88.

"I've been doing it since I was four and it's automatic," insists Sharapova. "I can't help it and I can't stop doing it."

Since Sharapova's noisemaking ranges from stentorian to barely audible, depending on the match, Lansdorp doesn't accept her excuse.

"After they told her to shut up at Birmingham, she played the next match without too much noise, so she's capable of doing it," says Lansdorp. "I've told her enough times, `Shut up, it sounds obnoxious.' "

Lansdorp also believes the noise distraction makes her more vulnerable to critics. "You don't want it that extreme because then people start saying, `Yeah, all she does is scream.' The better you become, the more people find things wrong with you. The jealousy is so enormous in this world. It's sad, but that's the way it is."

Aside from that discordant note, Sharapova is one of tennis' most charming personalities since Chris Evert. "Even when I call her a dumb blonde," says Lansdorp, "she just laughs and says, `Oh, Robert.' She never gets upset."

She doesn't even get annoyed when Lansdorp jokes about her sex symbol image and calls her "the next Kournikova" and says, "Anna, come over here."

Sharapova has a stock answer to the frequent comparisons with Kournikova. "I can't do anything about people making comparisons between us and I don't pay it much attention," she says.

Sharapova would much rather people watch her matches, her tennis skill and will, than her pretty face. Indeed, the intrusive paparazzi forced her to don a wig and glasses as a disguise in the Wimbledon village.

Her high-pitched voice takes on a definite firmness when she stresses, "I didn't come to the United States to be a model. So when people tell me that (I'm attractive), I want them to tell me how good a player I am. And not tell me, `Oh, you looked really good today.' "

Sharapova tries to keep her extraordinary life in perspective. "On the court I'm really tough. But off the court I'm a different person," she says. "I just enjoy the moment and have fun and just do the everyday things a teen does - except practice and stuff. Even though I'm not the average teen and get to travel around the world, I get to spend time with friends and family."

Sharapova also listens to Enya CDs, collects stamps, does fashion drawings, e-mails her friends and loves shopping. Reading engages her curious mind, and after reading books in the Sherlock Homes and Pippi Longstocking series, she recently enjoyed the latest Harry Potter book, The Order of Phoenix. "It's fun because I was in England, and it's big there," she says. "I just wanted to be part of the scene."

Last year she appeared on Teen People's list of "20 teens who will change the world." That may take a while, of course, but Sharapova compellingly explained her impact: "A great tennis career is something that a 15-year-old normally doesn't have. I hope my example helps other teens believe they can accomplish things they never thought possible."

On whether she can someday reach No. 1 on the brutally competitive pro tour,

Sharapova exudes her characteristic confidence. "I'm sure I will be because all the hard work will pay off," she says. "God gave me a big talent, and why not use it? If I stay a fighter and use the talent God gave me, I'm sure good things will happen."