Fri, Sep 30, 2005 - Page 23 News List

New generation of girls follows in Sharapova's wake

ROLE MODEL These days Moscow's famous Spartak tennis academy is having to turn away teenagers who all hope to emulate Maria Sharapova's success

AFP , MOSCOW

Maria Sharapova of Russia reacts after winning a point during her quarter-final match against Shinobu Asagoe of Japan at China Open tennis tournament in Beijing in this Sept. 23 file photo. Sharapova has become a role model for a new generation of Russian teenagers.

PHOTO: AFP

Glamor girl Maria Sharapova's meteoric rise to world number one is inspiring a new generation of Russian teenage girls to head for the courts hoping to emulate her sporting and financial success.

"The phone has been ringing around the clock for registrations since mid-August," says Igor Volkov, a coach at Moscow's famous Spartak tennis academy.

The academy now has 190 places compared to around 30 in 1994, but, since Sharapova became the first Russian woman to top the WTA world rankings last month, they've had to turn eager teenagers away.

"I would like to become as good as her and earn as much money as her," said 15-year-old Yuliya Livotova.

Sharapova, the blonde tennis star with the top model looks, won Wimbledon last year aged just 17. Since then her advertising contracts have netted her over US$18 million and by many accounts she has become the biggest earner in women's sport.

Sharapova, who was born in Siberia but has been living in Florida since she was eight, is not the first Russian player to popularize tennis.

Former Russian president and tennis enthusiast Boris Yeltsin restored the image of a sport once considered too bourgeois by the country's Communist leaders.

Anna Kournikova, another blonde tennis star with spectacular looks, then added the glamor.

Russia now leads women's tennis, with seven players in the top 20 global rankings compared to just three to long-time top-dogs the US.

More success came their way last weekend when a team inspired by Elena Dementieva successfully defended the FedCup defeating France 3-2 in the final in Paris

"The reason we are the best lies in the Russian character, we are more resilient," Volkov said.

Coaches at the Spartak academy, where the buildings have seen better days and the fences are left to rust, earn just US$200 a month.

Many promising teenagers leave for Europe and the US to look for better facilities.

"It's a pity the [Russian tennis] federation does nothing against this," said Kournikova's former coach, Larisa Preobrazhenskaya, 78, who fears Russian tennis will lose momentum.

Russian parents realise the problems but also know the opportunities that tennis offers and are prepared to put everything into developing their children's careers.

"At first, we had to force our grandson a bit -- it's an investment," Tamara Chikina said.

She wants to spare the boy "the fate of Russia's young people, who drink too much beer and swear in the streets."

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