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A Golden Start

Sharapova is excited about her 14-0 record but shies away from talk of matching Graf's four Grand Slams and gold medal in 1988

March 14, 2008|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

Golden bangs, so why not a golden Slam to follow?

Buzz, after all, takes many forms and Maria Sharapova has created an early splash on two fronts with her undefeated mark (14-0) which includes an Australian Open title in January, having arrived in Melbourne with retro-looking, blunt-cut bangs.

The fit-for-an-Austin Powers-movie look -- "It grows like weeds," Sharapova says -- was spawned in December and has made its way through about 48,000 air miles since then to the current tour stop, the Pacific Life Open at Indian Wells.

Now for some re-education, for youngsters, about the golden Slam. Steffi Graf won it in 1988, sweeping the four Grand Slam tournaments in the same calendar year and punctuating the achievement by adding the gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Seoul.

Sharapova, who will turn 22 in April and would have been 2 when Graf finished the feat, didn't quite mimic the famous John McEnroe line -- "You cannot be serious" -- but put her own spin on the concept when the Graf anniversary was mentioned by a reporter.

"Let's not get carried away here," said an amused Sharapova at Wednesday's media roundtable session. "I mean, 14-0 has nothing to do with a gold Slam and winning the Olympics in one year. Anything is possible. I think it is.

"I don't know if I'm ready for that yet, if I'm capable of doing that, to be honest. Yeah, it can happen."

The most recent best start came from Justine Henin, who opened 2004 with 16 consecutive victories. Henin won the Australian Open that year and the Olympics in Athens. Illness, however, kept her from playing Wimbledon and caused a rare, early loss at the French Open.

Henin, in fact, represents the biggest obstacle on what would be a long road for Sharapova to the Slam. That, and the clay of Paris. Sharapova is one major (the French Open) from a career Slam, having won on the other three surfaces.

The fourth-seeded Sharapova, who will play Stephanie Cohen-Aloro of France today in the second round, spoke about what it will take to knock off Henin and win the French Open. Henin is not playing Indian Wells.

"Especially on clay, a lot of patience," said Sharapova, who reached the French Open semifinals last year. "Even though it's not my best surface, I still kind of grew up on it, the majority of my junior tournaments I spent on clay, actually.

"I only play a couple of tournaments a year on it, so my focus at this point is to do well in these tournaments.

"It's like grass. You're only playing on it for a certain amount of weeks. Right off the bat, you gotta be ready to perform well and be physically and mentally ready to hit as many shots as it takes."

Sharapova was in a relaxed mood and laughed frequently during the session, and did so when reminded how she once compared her movement on clay to a cow on ice. She has lost two sets in 2008.

"The first few days on clay, it's so different," she said. "Even on grass, when you just get on it, the first feelings on grass are great because it's so soft and everything. On clay it's a whole different story. The first few days, I'm like, 'Whoa.' "

Her career trajectory was stalled last year by a troublesome shoulder problem.

"In a way, after I won Australia, I said it was my success the second time around," said Sharapova, who won Wimbledon at 17. "What I meant was, it was like a fresh breath of air. After having that slump, I was able to come back."

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One of the bigger crowds around the grounds was to watch a short practice hit/experiment between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal around 6 p.m. on Thursday.

Super-imposed on the net were these words: "ATP World Tour 500." Federer's thoughts afterward about the branding, sponsorship experiment? "I'll answer another day," he said, looking unenthusiastic. It was suggested that was an answer in itself, and Federer said, "I guess so."

The men's draw featured an odd quirk -- the double withdrawal of Frank Dancevic of Canada and Alejandro Falla of Colombia. Dancevic's move was not a surprise, as he has been suffering from a back injury.

It was the same ailment sidelining Falla too. So two lucky losers from qualifying played one another as Fabio Fognini of Italy beat Rainer Schuettler of Germany, 2-6, 6-3, 6-3, in the first round. The last time two lucky losers played in the first round of an ATP event was at the Thailand Open in September 2007.

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lisa.dillman@latimes.com

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