Sun, Jan 16, 2005 - Page 23 News List

Russian's Sharapova remains a class act

PRO TENNIS TOUR Maria Sharapova is seeded fourth in the Australian Open, which begins tomorrow, but she is already No. 1 in the hearts of millions of fans worldwide

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Maria Sharapova of Russia during a press conference at Melbourne Park in Melbourne Australia, yesterday. Sharapova is seeded fourth in the Australian Open.

PHOTO: AP

If tennis ever stops being fun for Maria Sharapova, she might consider a career in diplomacy.

One of seven Russians ranked in the top 15 in women's tennis, the 17-year-old may have the brightest future, on and off the court, with her still-improving game and model looks to go with her lanky 1.83m frame. But there are clearly tensions among them as they seek the No. 1 ranking.

The reigning Wimbledon champion deftly sidestepped questions about the issue Saturday -- particularly what appears to be a growing feud with French Open titlist Anastasia Myskina -- as she prepared for the Australian Open, the season-opening Grand Slam.

At No. 4, Sharapova is seeded one spot behind Myskina. Asked how important it was for her to overtake her compatriot, she smiled and said: "It's not as important as being No. 1 in the world, I'll put it this way."

She said she has friends among the top Russian women, but added that age differences mean she doesn't have much in common with many of them.

Sharapova's rapid rise to Wimbledon champion has been well-chronicled -- her talent spotted at age 5 at a clinic by Martina Navratilova, a move to Florida at 7 with her father to get the best coaching despite a bankroll of only US$700, her mother left behind due to visa problems, life in a dormitory with older girls.

When Myskina won the French Open last year, she was a national hero. It was a contrast to the more subdued reaction when Sharapova won Wimbledon a month later, with many noting that she calls Florida home now.

"She speaks Russian with a coarse accent," Myskina sniped in November, when she threatened to quit Russia's Fed Cup team if Sharapova joins the squad this year, saying she doesn't like Sharapova's father, Yuri.

Myskina lost to Sharapova at the season-ending WTA Championships, then accused Yuri of illegally coaching his daughter from the stands.

"He was just yelling and screaming instructions to her, and I thought he just might jump right on the court at one point in the match," Myskina said.

Sharapova was assessed a code violation for being coached by her father during her victory over Serena Williams in the final. She went on to win the title.

The incident hasn't seemed to have fazed Sharapova, who staunchly claims she only plays tennis because it's fun and says she would quit if it weren't.

"I'm just taking a day at a time, enjoying life, enjoying what I do, and just working hard, hoping to be No. 1," she told reporters Saturday. "If it doesn't happen, I'm not going to, you know, die. Many things can happen in life. You can get injured, and your career is over."

Sharapova, who calls herself a "girlie girl" who enjoys dressing up for photo shoots for magazines like Vogue, seems like a normal teenager -- who just happens to have a lot of tennis talent.

She said she doesn't set goals -- other than "to be healthy and happy" -- and claims she was surprised to win Wimbledon so young and doesn't look ahead beyond her next match.

"I don't think that people really understand that I am only 17," she said.

Perhaps that's because her game and attitude are so mature, especially for someone who was playing for the juniors title here just two years ago.

Now she's one of the premier draws.

Roger Federer confirmed his No. 1 ranking and his status as hot favorite for the Australian Open with a 6-4, 7-5 win over second-ranked Andy Roddick in the final.

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