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Marquee'd Up

Sharapova isn't simply the face, she's the prime factor in women's draw

June 20, 2005|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

WIMBLEDON, England — This used to be Anna-ville.

Once, not so long ago, you could not help but see the ads around here with Anna Kournikova in the leading role, featuring a certain undergarment, and the requisite double-entendre. Well, maybe Yuri Sharapov would have missed them if he had been around.

Apparently, one could draw the conclusion that his eyesight is a bit off after hearing this anecdote from his daughter, the defending Wimbledon champion, Maria Sharapova of Russia. The 18-year-old said she was caught off guard seeing her larger-than-life image in a telecommunications ad dominating Wimbledon's High Street, not far from the hallowed All England Club.

"I got halfway down the street and I was like, 'Whoa.' It hit me," Sharapova said Sunday at a pre-tournament news conference at Wimbledon, which starts today. "I was telling my dad, 'Do you see that?' He's like, 'What, what, I don't see anything.' I'm like, 'Hello, how can you not see anything?' "

If anything, the Wimbledon title last year emphatically dismissed the notion that Sharapova was Anna 2.0. In the last 12 months, her success on the court and endorsement earning power in the international marketplace leave one undeniable impression: Maria 1.0.

She is the top-earning female athlete, according to the recently released list compiled by Forbes magazine. Soon, 1.0 could signify the No. 1 ranking. Sharapova, who has won three tournaments in 2005, came within a few ground strokes of supplanting Lindsay Davenport at the top during her least favorite part of the year, the clay-court season.

Of immediate interest, however, is the title defense on her beloved grass. It will begin with her first-round match Tuesday against Nuria Llagostera Vives of Spain. To even have a shot at reaching the final, Sharapova could end up facing Serena or Venus Williams, both former champions, or French Open champion Justine Henin-Hardenne of Belgium, in the semifinals. Henin-Hardenne, who is on a 24-match winning streak, has defeated Sharapova in their last two meetings.

Sharapova left no doubt about her leading priority when asked on a conference call last week whether she would rather be No. 1 or win Wimbledon this year. "Wimbledon," she said.

Leading tennis coach Robert Lansdorp, who has worked with Sharapova during her frequent trips to Southern California over the years, noted that the women's field is more competitive this year at Wimbledon. Henin-Hardenne, sidelined by a virus, and Kim Clijsters, out because of an injured wrist, missed Wimbledon in 2004.

This will be the first time since Wimbledon 2003 that the foursome of Henin-Hardenne, Clijsters, and Venus and Serena Williams all were fit and healthy enough to compete in the same Grand Slam event.

"However, Maria will come up with the goods," Lansdorp said. "She'll feel like Wimbledon is her tournament, and I think she's actually better than she was last year overall. She's gotten stronger, she's a little quicker, she's has a little more variety. She serves and volleys a little bit more.

"Like winning the [WTA] championships, she's capable of lifting her game. On grass, everything is in her favor. The other ones have to play better. The other ones have to find the what-am-I-going-to-do-with-Maria kind of attitude."

She hasn't lost on grass since 2003, and her record on the surface is 26-2. Sharapova, though hampered by a thigh injury, successfully defended her grass-court title at Birmingham, England, this month. Although it's early, Lansdorp sees a sense of ownership emerging from Sharapova at Wimbledon mirroring some of the past greats.

"Sometimes, they go to Wimbledon and they really feel like it's theirs," he said. "Like [Boris] Becker, he'd walk out there and say, 'OK, you go beat me. I belong here.' This is my stuff. Pete [Sampras] couldn't wait to go to Wimbledon.

"I think she walks in there and she really feels like she belongs. It's her surface. 'You guys try to beat me.' All those little things, they all count."

Sharapova spent a decent portion of her news conference Sunday talking about fashion, a common thread in news briefings with Venus and Serena Williams.

There won't be a form-fitting cat suit, a la Serena Williams, but instead Sharapova is unveiling tennis shoes with 18-carat gold specks on the sides.

"That's something totally different. But it shines unbelievably. Hopefully can distract my opponents a little bit," she said, smiling.

Last week, on the conference call, the kid in Sharapova surfaced when she giggled after talking maturely about her rapid rise in the marketplace. In seconds, it sounded as if she went from 22 to 12.

"The reason why everything happened so fast was because it was so unexpected and I think I won Wimbledon at a young age," she said. "You didn't see a lot of young champions in the last three years. It was a surprise, and I guess everyone just got excited."

Like Becker, who won here at age 17, her life changed forever after match point against Serena Williams last year on Centre Court. Sharapova said the realization things would always be different didn't hit her all at once.

"There wasn't an exact point where it changed," she said. "The time after, like one or two weeks, I know I won, but I wasn't like, 'Oh, I won, yeah, I know I won.' It was still a bit of a shock for me. There wasn't one time it hit me. When so many people tell you, 'You won Wimbledon,' I think it gets [through] to you."

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