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An acute case of Maria Mania

Published Aug. 28, 2005

The hottest story to hit women's tennis since the forehand slams of Venus and Serena Williams is a tall, blond and beautiful 17-year-old from Siberia who, on a recent New England morning, is hopelessly surrounded.

Maria Sharapova settles into her seat at a small circular table with barely enough room to stretch her long legs forward. And everywhere she looks here in a conference room at the Pilot Pen Open, a member of the media is looking back.

A half-dozen print and radio reporters are squeezed around the table with her, with another cluster of press types hovering from all sides, ready for the verbal volleying to commence.

Sharapova, who actually appears taller than her lithesome 6 feet, smiles politely, but you know what she must be thinking:

More of the same old questions she's heard a million times in the past month and a half, since her world and that of the Women's Tennis Association Tour took an unexpected turn across the Atlantic.

Ah, the price of sudden celebrity.

Sharapova's stunning upset at Wimbledon on July 3, steamrolling top-seeded Serena Williams in straight sets, made her one of the youngest players ever to win the hallowed Grand Slam event and, as the 13th seed, the biggest long shot to triumph there.

For the WTA, the outcome has meant a new, bankable name for the tour, which has seen the Williams sisters battle injuries in the past year and no longer dominate as they once did.

Sharapova, meanwhile, has been catapulted from a relatively quiet life at her home in Bradenton to tennis stardom and the pop culture stratosphere _ fueled by a combination of her power game, glamorous looks, shrewd and highly protective handlers, and compelling coming-to-America immigrant's tale with a tennis twist.

The post-Wimbledon whirlwind has whisked her under the nonstop glare of the spotlight. The cover of Sports Illustrated. Across TV screens on network shows from Today to Entertainment Tonight. A new multimillion dollar global deal with Motorola that will put her face in wireless phone ads at home and abroad. A modeling spread this month in Vogue Italia. And this tournament at the Connecticut Tennis Center on the eve of her next Grand Slam, the U.S. Open, which starts Monday.

The greater New Haven area is abuzz. You see it in posters plastered in downtown store windows, in TV and brochure ads, T-shirts and even temporary tattoos with the new tennis catch phrase.

"Maria Mania" is in full swing.

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So, here she sits last Sunday, meeting the press in what the tour calls All-Access Hour, where top draws at each tournament do Q&A sessions.

The Pilot Pen boasts three higher-ranked players _ No. 4 Lindsay Davenport, No. 6 Elena Dementieva and No. 7 Jennifer Capriati _ but No. 8 Sharapova is the main attraction.

She had committed to the event, a popular Open tuneup on the grounds of Yale University, back in the spring when she was merely a teenage player with promise.

After Wimbledon, tournament officials _ realizing they had a major coup on their hands _ reshaped their entire ad campaign around Sharapova, whose new top 10 ranking had rocketed her from No. 31 in late 2003 and No. 186 in 2002. The paparazzi even descended upon New Haven early last month, speeding after her on a local highway while she was being driven to a street clinic to promote the tournament.

Facing the media at the moment, what comes across is a teen with poise, confidence and a streak of toughness, clearly controlling the flow of the show _ much like she did at Wimbledon.

Don't let the sweet smile and frequent giggle fool you. Sharapova is a cool customer. Speaking with only a hint of an accent, she won't hesitate to deflect questions that she doesn't want to answer. Such as whether she has a boyfriend and what parts of her game she's working on, or whether the tour promotes the sex-appeal factor too much ("I don't really pay attention to who promotes what. It's none of my business. I just go out and play tennis.")

If she likes a question _ for instance, are opponents hungrier to beat her since Wimbledon? _ she can be effusive and charming. "When somebody is hungry, then I'm starving," she says. If she doesn't like the queries, or perhaps is bored by them, she doesn't break a sweat providing any extra details. The game is played on her terms.

But, hey, for a kid who's been subjected to prolonged media fatigue and interview overload for nearly two months, she hangs in well.

You can learn that she's crazy about her iPod because it comes in pink. She likes watching MTV's Punked with Ashton Kutcher and Fox's teen drama, The OC. She's a voracious reader who's tackling the Da Vinci Code. She's into instant messaging, enjoys sketching her own fashion designs and loves to shop.

In other words, a typical American teenage girl who happens to be Russian _ with a whole planet of opportunities knocking on her door.

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In a tunnel overlooking one end of Stadium Court, two ball boys are on Maria Watch, waiting for her arrival for a doubles match. Tim Gaccione, 15, ponders a question about what he thinks of Sharapova when pal Steve Marin, 13, jumps in.

"She's hot, just say it," Marin interjects.

"Steaming," says Gaccione.

"Blazing," adds Marin.

"But she's a really good player, and she's really powerful," responds Gaccione, attempting to elevate the tenor of the discussion.

"Yeah, powerful _ you're just talking about how she moves," Marin teases.

In moments, Sharapova steps into view, towering over doubles partner Maria Kirilenko. She's wearing her usual white tennis dress, setting off her Florida tan and lean physique, and a white visor that holds back the long blond locks from her face.

In a heartbeat, the sparse early round crowd goes crazy. A group of young men gather at the railing to call her name. "I love you Maria!!" screams a male voice from the opposite side of the court. "Woo-hoooo!!" shouts another.

Sharapova, however, doesn't give the crowd much to cheer about after she and Kirilenko drop the opening set in a 7-6 tiebreaker to Daniela Hantuchova and Dinara Safina. They fall 6-3 in the second set. And that turns out to be a sign of things to come.

The next night, in the featured singles match of the day, she steps onto Stadium Court in front of a boisterous, cheering crowd of 7,281. She had received a first-round bye, but now she is about to receive a second-round bye-bye. Mashona Washington, ranked No. 81, ambushes Sharapova 6-3, 2-6, 6-3.

One of her biggest weapons _ her blistering serve _ has failed her with 12 double faults that turn the tide to Washington, who draws a big ovation.

"It's all about learning," a disappointed Sharapova says after the match. "At 17, I've got a lot to learn."

Indeed, her on-court education since Wimbledon has been somewhat taxing. There was Sharapova's error-filled, two-set defeat in the quarterfinals of last month's Acura Classic in San Diego to French Open winner and fellow Russian Anastasia Myskina (ranked No. 3); and a recent loss in the third round of the Canadian Open, falling in three heated sets to another Russian, 10th-ranked Vera Zvonareva.

It's a reminder that Sharapova is still a work in progress, with her schedule restricted by WTA rules until she turns 18 in April. And the fact that she won Wimbledon so young, a few years earlier than anyone imagined, has created some big expectations.

TV analyst and ex-tennis great Tracy Austin won the Open at 16. She understands the pressure.

"When Monica Seles, Martina Hingis and I won (Grand Slams) at 16, we had already been at the top of the game," she says. "I was probably No. 2 or No. 3 in the world, and Hingis was No. 1 and had beaten the top five. Maria had never beaten a top-five player before Wimbledon _ her first time was beating Davenport in the semis.

"The point is, she wasn't beating Lindsay and Serena before Wimbledon, and she might not be beating everyone in her path for another six months or a year. But I think Maria will be No. 1. It's just not going to happen right now, even though the general public now has very high expectations for her."

Bud Collins, longtime tennis writer, historian and network TV commentator, interviewed an ebullient Sharapova minutes after she delighted the Wimbledon crowd and television viewers by climbing into the stands to embrace her father, Yuri Sharapov.

Post-Wimbledon stumbles aside, Collins says, "I hope she can keep it up and I think people have to be patient with her, because she's not a finished tennis player. It doesn't mean she's going to start mowing down majors now. But what she's done so far makes her a phenom in the true sense of the word. She's great for the game. Plus, she's gorgeous."

There's been a lot of talk about that, along with comparisons with Russian tennis star Anna Kournikova, a former top 10 player who became famous for her pin-up looks but never won a tournament, let alone a Grand Slam, as Sharapova did.

"It's almost like Sharapova is the deferred payment of Kournikova coming through," says Peter Bodo, senior editor at Tennis magazine. "I think she clearly addresses the same fan base."

But does being a knockout, in addition to possessing a knockout serve, really matter?

"Of course it does," Collins says. "That makes a difference in everything. Everybody says, "It's athletic ability, let's not get into the sex angle.' But our country is the sex angle."

Adds Nick Bollettieri, who runs the Bollettieri/IMG Academy in Bradenton, where Sharapova has trained since she was a child: "Hey, that's the way it is. The Lord made her good-looking. You might as well go for everything, right?"

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Sharapova doesn't like to hear any comparisons to Kournikova, though she does credit her with helping to make tennis more popular among Russian youth.

She has said she wants to make people focus on her tennis instead of focusing on her as a model. "Well, yeah, because I'm not a model," she says. "I play tennis." And if people focus on her looks? "That's their fault. I can't change that," she says.

Of course, Sharapova has signed a contract with IMG Models and recently had the overseas Vogue splash. Yet longtime friends, such as WTA marketing executive Sophie Goldschmidt who befriended Sharapova when she was 11, says that modeling and fashion design are pursuits she enjoys, but "Maria doesn't do anything at the expense of tennis."

Away from the court, Goldschmidt said, Sharapova is a person who likes independence while still feeling a close bond to her father and mother, Yelena: "She's a bright girl who grew up very fast, and she's very happy and secure in herself."

Today, Sharapova is part of the wave of Russians rising in the rankings, with five in the top 10. Ironically, though, she wasn't considered good enough for the Russian Olympic team. "It wasn't a tragedy; hopefully I'll make it in four years," she says.

Her current success has earned her new fans in droves, including Davenport, who withdrew from the Pilot Pen tournament with a sore wrist. "She's obviously been a great addition," she says. "Her run at Wimbledon was pretty remarkable and just a huge breakthrough."

But Davenport sees more to Sharapova's arrival.

"I think she also brings a totally different off-court image than a lot of the players have," she says. "You know, she obviously has the good looks and draws in a ton of attention that way. (But) she has a huge desire to continue to do well in tennis and not get distracted by a lot of the outside opportunities."

WTA chief Larry Scott sees a gem: "I think Maria's already had a big impact and over her career she'll have a very significant impact on the tour, because she's got a real superstar quality about her."

After her all-access media session, Sharapova sits inside a small office. She seems relaxed, cordial.

She recalls the first thing she bought herself after winning Wimbledon, a Louis Vuitton purse in London. "When I go shopping now, I don't feel so guilty anymore of getting things," she says, laughing. "But I still have to think about it."

Sharapova also has to think about simply walking out in public now. People recognize her everywhere. But she says she accepts the loss of privacy. "A lot of people know you now. But it doesn't change what I do. I'm still going to live life like I've always lived it."

The earliest chapters of her life have been told and retold in recent months. Her father moved his wife and young daughter away from the Chernobyl area after the nuclear accident that threatened the region. Several years later, at 5, Sharapova was singled out of a crowd of kids at a Moscow tennis tournament by Martina Navratilova, who encouraged Yuri Sharapov to help his daughter develop her gift.

So two years later, he borrowed $700 and flew to Florida with his daughter. Yelena stayed home in Russia while husband and daughter made their journey, speaking no English, with no plan other than to find the renowned Bollettieri Academy.

They landed in Miami, took a bus to Bradenton, with no appointment. For two years, her father worked odd jobs and found players to practice with his 7-year-old daughter. Though she learned English in four months, she was shy and missed her mother, who didn't arrive for two years because of visa problems.

Finally, Bollettieri granted her a scholarship at 9. She had to room with much older girls. They ignored her, teased her. But her natural determination, forged from meager roots, got her through. "It could be a movie," IMG manager Max Eisenbud says.

To Bollettieri, the star being born had a few special traits: "We didn't see much of her at first, because she was so thin, she'd turn sideways and her shadow was bigger than she was. But what we did see was an amazing ability to focus at a young age and not be distracted." He also saw grit.

"Lemme tell you something," he says. "Maria is as tough as tough can be. She fits in the same mold as Monica Seles and Steffi Graf," both among the many tennis stars to train with Bollettieri over the years.

He credits Sharapova's father for tapping every available resource to help his daughter, including seeking out coach Robert Lansdorp, who developed his pupil's potent serve and groundstrokes.

Sharapova says she owes a debt to her coaches, but most of all to her parents for the sacrifice they made to bring her to America. "They've always wanted me to be very happy," she says. "They wanted me to achieve many great things and I think for them, this is an amazing moment."

She has had a few herself since Wimbledon _ congratulations from the likes of former Soviet president Boris Yeltsin, Russian president Vladimir Putin and fashion designer Stella McCartney, daughter of ex-Beatle Paul McCartney.

Even San Diego Chargers quarterback Doug Flutie is on the bandwagon, after seeing her play last year in the Acura Classic, then posing with her for WTA publicity shots in training camp. "The thing about Maria is that people will notice her because she's a very pretty girl," Flutie said. "But all that aside, she's an excellent tennis player and an incredibly hard worker."

Her goal now: Get back on track at the Open.

Her long-term goal, though, is to be No. 1 and win many more Grand Slams, many more Wimbledons. That means many more questions from the media, too. But judging by how things have gone so far, Sharapova should have plenty to talk about.

HALL OF MANIA

Every so often, a new mania will burst onto the scene. Here are a few notable ones that have earned recognition in sports and beyond.

BEATLEMANIA

The hysteria spawned by John, Paul, George and Ringo. Maybe the best known of all the manias and possibly the birthplace of the catch phrase. Sinatra and The King were big, but no manias for them.

MARIA MANIA

The latest of the mania catch phrases, this one is inspired by 2004 Wimbledon winner Maria Sharapova but still hasn't stood the test of time.

WRESTLEMANIA

The mega-popular event, anchored by stars from Andre the Giant to Hulk Hogan, has brought smiles to pro wrestling fans everywhere since its birth in 1985.

FERNANDOMANIA

The term inspired by Dodgers chubby ace Fernando Valenzuela. The Mexican native was one of baseball's most popular players in the 1980s, the first pitcher to win Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young Award in the same season.

TAZ MANIA

The 1990s cartoon television series starring one of Warner Brothers' most popular characters, the Tazmanian Devil.