The girl who has it all

Maria Sharapova has the legs of a catwalk model, the face of a Hollywood beauty, the athletic gifts of a sporting prodigy and the poise of a born champion and that makes for the most marketable package this side of David Beckham and Anna Kournikova, writes NIRMAL SHEKAR.

"To tell you the truth, I don't know what happened in the match. I don't know how I won. I don't know what the tactics were. I was just out there. I was just playing. I couldn't care less what was going on outside me. I was in my own little world. I don't know what world that was really." — Maria Sharapova.

SHE was there, yet she was not there. She was thinking and doing the right things on court, yet she wasn't thinking at all. She knew what she wanted and was going after it relentlessly, yet she did not want anything at all.

Musicians and artists, the great and the good, would know all about the feeling. It happens when they lose themselves in rare, exalted moments of peak performance, moments when the performer and the performance are one, moments when the "I" doesn't exist, or rather, is submerged in the "It", a tour de force.

And, without actually realising it, Maria Sharapova, 17, was going through a `peak experience' as a performer on that Saturday in the most famous tennis court in the world and against a two-time Wimbledon champion — Serena Williams. Those privileged enough to have watched that astonishing display of nerveless attacking tennis in the women's singles final of the 118th Wimbledon championships will never, ever, forget it.

From abandonment comes tranquillity, says the Bhagavad Gita. The state of mind achieved almost involuntarily by Sharapova, one without the rude interference of thought, left her in a serene world where the actor and the action were one.

It is difficult to actually strive for such a rare state of performance bliss, which leads to extraordinary achievements in the world of sport. For the moment you consciously seek the condition, you are at once negating the first principle of that state of being.

"I don't know what world that was really," said Sharapova with a breathless teenaged giggle. That's the key, really. Nor, in fact, did she know how she managed to get to that world.

Then again, the fact she did has now elevated her to the status of a tennis Goddess, no less. Only last year, she made her Wimbledon debut on a wild card and made it to the fourth round. Twelve months on, she has won the whole thing.

In the next two or three years, if she keeps playing as well as she has during the Wimbledon fortnight, Sharapova could very well become the face of women's tennis. The 17-year-old has it all. The legs of a catwalk model, the face of a Hollywood beauty, the athletic gifts of a sporting prodigy and the poise of a born champion. That makes for the most marketable package this side of David Beckham and Anna Kournikova. By conservative estimates, Sharapova should be richer by about $50 million over the next three or four years.

Then again, those figures would have hardly crossed Yuri Sharapov's mind when he flew into Miami, economy class, with $700 in his wallet and his seven-year-old daughter in tow. The man was on a mission.

In the wee hours of the morning, father and daughter, tired and jet lagged, reached Nick Bollettieri's coaching academy. The next few years were an ordeal for the kid and her whole family. Sharapova's mother, Elena, could not join them because of visa problems and her father had to let her stay in a dormitory in Bollettieri's because he had to go from place to place seeking work.

"We have gone through a lot together. All those sacrifices, all those tough days, not being able to see mom for two years, being away from my dad for one year because he had to find work... now they are worth it," said Sharapova. The latest version of sport's rags-to-riches fairytale might very well be the best thing that has happened to woman's tennis in a long time.

With the Williams sisters unable — or unwilling — to commit themselves week after week after week on the Tour and injuries sidelining Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters, the sport needed something like this to rekindle public interest.

"It's a fantastic achievement, especially the way she did, dominating Serena," said Martina Navratilova, arguably the greatest woman to ever unsheath a tennis racquet. "What a talent."

The great lady, who played her last Wimbledon, said Sharapova was "extremely committed to her cause and she loves to play. That is the best part. It is great to see her make it. It is fantastic."

Of course, for a coup de theatre such as this one to take place, fantasy and reality will have to meet at the same place and time and give and take a little, as it happened on that memorable Saturday.

"She's obviously got the body. She is so long. And now she has grown into it. And she'll get still stronger," said Navratilova. "So it's great for women's tennis. It is the best thing that could have happened to us. Obviously, it is great for her. But it is great for women's tennis."

If it's been a believe-it-or-not story until now, then how successfully Sharapova manages to live up to her potential and leave an indelible mark on the game depends on factors that cannot be visualised and analysed at this point in time.

The first big one has come too soon and Sharapova herself has arrived much before her time, as she herself acknowledges. "It's amazing. I am absolutely speechless," said Sharapova. "I never, never expected this to happen so fast. It has always been my dream to come here and win. But it was never in my mind that I would do it this year. When I came off the court and saw my name on the board with all the champions, that was when I realised I had won," said the champion.

If she got on board sooner than expected, then it is not as if it was a fluke. Sharapova has the big game that most women don't even dare dream of. Her serve is a big weapon and she is unafraid to go for broke when pushed to the wall. And her groundstrokes can do a lot of damage on both flanks, as Serena would readily acknowledge.

What is more, the teenager born in Siberia and brought up in Sochi on the Black Sea and then shipped out to Florida, is not yet a finished product. She can only get better as she grows older.

But, given all her gifts, the breathtakingly beautiful blonde may have to be very careful to avoid the pitfalls she'd surely come across in her career. If she can stay undistracted and focus on her game, Sharapova can dominate the women's game for some time to come. "Now, of course, my goal is to be No. 1 in the world," said Sharapova.

In terms of popular appeal in the post-Kournikova age in tennis, Maria Sharapova might already be that — the numero uno.

1987 Maria Sharapova born on April 19, Nyagan, Siberia.

1991 Starts playing tennis.

1997 Leaves home to train at Nick Bollettieri's Tennis Academy in Florida.

2001 Turns pro on 14th birthday.

2002 Handed wild-card at Indian Wells and beats Brie Rippner in first round.

March Debuts on WTA rankings at 532. Goes on to reach the final at five consecutive ITF Circuit events, winning the first three. Ends the year ranked 186.

2003 Qualifies for first Grand Slams at Australian and French, but loses in opening round at both.

June Reaches first WTA Tour semi-final in Birmingham and breaks into world top 100 at No. 88. Handed wild-card for Wimbledon and reaches fourth round.

October Becomes youngest winner on WTA Tour in 2003 — aged 16 years and five months — with singles and doubles title at Japan Open in Tokyo. Ranked 31.

February 2004 Breaks into world's top 25. April Reaches 19 in world rankings.

May Seeded 18 for French Open. Reaches quarter-final.

June Wins singles and doubles titles in Birmingham. World ranking: 15.

July 4 Seeded 13, wins first Grand Slam final at Wimbledon with straight-sets defeat of No. 1 seed Serena Williams.

July 5 Climbs to No. 8 in WTA rankings.