TENNIS FIRST

Maria Sharapova is good-looking, yes, but it is the special talent that drives her current image as some sort of billboard goddess. Consequently, women's tennis hasn't attracted this much attention possibly since the days of Steffi Graf, writes VIJAY PARTHASARATHY.

MARIA SHARAPOVA had better realise what she's let herself in for. With one altogether dazzling year behind her, she's been prodded and pushed out from backstage and here she is now, weathering the applause like a giggly Broadway debutante, eager and not a little uncertain.

The Russian, unexpected winner at Wimbledon and the season-ending WTA Tour championship, is already being swamped by entire legions of admirers claiming that she is the future of women's tennis, the great new hope for the game; and once they've exhausted the easy cliches they will probably write her an awful lot of bad poetry. Enough at any rate to inspire self-loathing in the object of affection.

It isn't quite as absurd then as it is charming, that the lady in question happens to be, in truth, a mere child-woman of 17, who, given half the chance, would rather curl up and read another exciting novel in the Pippi Longstocking adventure series. Pippi Longstocking, for crying out loud: that's as cute as the idea of a 15 year-old Einstein getting his intellectual stimulus from watching Porky Pig.

A first Wimbledon title is inevitably accompanied by the can't-wait-to-get-a-slice-of-you sort of fame. The pressure is implosive; few players make the transition to tennis star without losing a sense of perspective. And, that's easy to understand: the racquet gets buried in next to no time under the debris of million dollar advertising contracts, the face gets caked in layers of make-up. Must feel stifling, for sure.

But to her credit, Sharapova seems to have adapted pretty well so far to the shifting landscape. Yes, she's obviously grown media-savvy; she is aware of her pleasant looks. But give her a break: she is no more self-conscious than your average teenager, concerned about the pimple breaking on his nose.

And for the moment at least, that's exactly who she is: an ordinary, nice enough girl, who might have caught your eye if she passed you on the street. But you wouldn't have dreamt of pouncing on her, unless you belonged, in the first place, to a home for delinquents.

The point is it's the special talent that drives her current image as some sort of billboard goddess, just as it once did for Anna Kournikova. It just so happens that Sharapova is good-looking; but let's not forget for a second that her tennis champion alter-ego takes over the moment she steps on court. Sharapova is here first and foremost to play tennis; the curtsies come later.

Meanwhile, Roger Federer continues to squeeze adjectives of a different variety out of tennis writers. Federer isn't Brad Pitt — hell, he isn't even Humphrey Bogart — but you suspect that won't prevent a producer from hiring the Swiss prodigy to play himself in the story based on his life.

At the same time, it's interesting how Mark Philippoussis never really grew beyond the Australian consciousness. The super-talented former Wimbledon and U.S. Open finalist is perhaps Kournikova's closest equivalent in the men's game, yet only Aussie tabloids have pounced on his off-court activities for the most part.

Pretty boys don't necessarily sell, as evident in the case of Mark Philippoussis, the closest equivalent in the men's game to Anna Kournikova. -- Pic. REUTERS & V. GANESAN-

Goes to show pretty boys don't necessarily sell — a sad comment on a society, which prefers to condescendingly categorise achievements according to gender.

Consequently, women's tennis hasn't attracted this much attention possibly since the days of Steffi Graf. (Kournikova remains locked in competition with Jennifer Lopez if you get the drift.) Ankle problems forced Martina Hingis to retire early — indeed, at the rate her namesake, Navratilova, is going at the moment, you wonder which was named after the other. Venus and Serena Williams bulldozed the opposition for a while, then spent the next couple of years breaking down alternately. These women were supposed to dominate for the better part of a decade; instead today we find ourselves watching a troupe of lithe ballerinas twirling across the tennis-court.

Six-love, Tchaikovsky.

Sharapova is the youngest and arguably the most talented of the Russian stock currently in circulation. A gaunt, six-foot frame helps when you need to hammer in those first serves or reach out wide. Her groundstrokes are deep and impeccably angled; in particular, the Siberian-born lass has a penetrating forehand that makes you think of an icy Tsarina employing a whip on a truant sled dog.

HOLDEN Caulfield might have said it: we live in the Phony Age.

These are times when a combination of good looks and the odd tournament win will guarantee fame for a lifetime, or at least until you are remembered for being remembered. In many cases you could even dispense with the "win" bit.

Sharapova has now won five, which probably means she will eventually be mummified for posterity. But she appears mature enough to understand (sub-consciously or otherwise) that she needs to retain her innocence for the time being, and grow up as normally as possible.

For that, she only need remember the time she spent at the Nick Bolletieri Academy as a lonely kid separated from her mother for two years and getting picked on by fellow tennis hopefuls much older than her, after Martina Navratilova had spotted her as a six year-old at a Moscow exhibition event and recommended a spell in Florida.

"I was a nine year-old staying in a dormitory for a year and it was very difficult," she recalled in a recent interview. "I stayed with six-other girls, who were 17. It was very rough. When I went to sleep and moved a little they were, like, why are you moving? I would go to bed at eight o'clock and they would wake me up at 11 and say, `You'd better clean the room.'"

It isn't as though Sharapova is out for vengeance; she isn't being a petty brat either. She's merely revealing a little about herself, telling you that's partly why she is so competitive.

"When you come from Russia, you are very organised and you have little piles of clothes and always make your bed and stuff," she explains. "And then at the academy if you didn't make your bed or did something wrong you'd get points off and have to pick up the balls or something. I always made my bed and one day I came back and found my bed was not made. And I had to go pick up the balls.

"That is not easy when you are nine. They would not count me in on anything unless I was there. There was just one girl who was kind of nice and talked to me and was supportive. It was not easy."

Such things most certainly hurt when you're growing up, and she's still a kid. This is not to dismiss Sharapova, the tennis player, as some lucky novice with no killer instinct. Far from it. La Femme Nikita has so far appeared particularly sharp during the big games; she has only lost one tournament final since turning pro at the age of 14. Former world number one Serena Williams has now lost to the teenager in two tight finals, which is an acute indicator of the latter's mental strength.

WINNING a million dollars is not always fun. It can invite serious angst and leave you pondering upon existential conundrums. "Now that I have all the money that I wanted what do I do with it? Am I me anymore?"

But if you happen to be Maria Sharapova the answer ought to be obvious. "Well," our pretty Lolita is alleged to have said after winning the said amount for the WTA Tour championship, "that's a lot of shoes, isn't it?" (That statement must rank alongside Marie Antoinette's classy remark on cakes, and we all know how the deposed queen ended up.) Well, at least someone in this world is giddy with happiness for the moment.

Seriously though, this is just the beginning.

Sharapova, like any performer, is now saddled with the thankless job of repeating the magic, season after dreary season. Certainly, she is the great new hope for the game and all that; but she must remember that longevity is the harshest parameter for greatness, and take herself seriously for her own sake even more than ours.