Saturday, July 23, 2011

Sharapova: From Russia with love

   At 7 years old, Maria Sharapova boarded an airplane with her father, Yuri, in Russia and headed to the United States. Maria's mother, Yelena, stayed behind to finish college and await a visa.
   Yuri had $700 in his pocket that he had borrowed from Maria's grandparents. Neither he nor Maria spoke English.   
   They were headed to the famed Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla., to pursue Yuri's dream of stardom for Maria.
   "When they came, they had less than nothing," Bollettieri recalled. "They certainly didn't come from money, my man. It was tough. Anytime you split up a family and don't have a pot to pee in, it's a big gamble. But it paid off."
   Figurately and literally. With her prodigious talent, towering height, cover-girl looks and Marine-like discipline, Sharapova has become the world's richest female athlete. She grossed $24.5 million last year, according to Forbes magazine. Only $651,279 came from prize money. Sharapova earned the rest from endorsements -- with companies such as Nike, Sony Ericsson and Tiffany -- and appearance fees.
   After a first-round bye, Sharapova is scheduled to play her opening match in the Bank of the West Classic at Stanford on Wednesday at 7 p.m. She is seeded second behind Belarus' Victoria Azarenka, who beat Sharapova in a shriek-fest in last year's final. Unseeded Serena Williams, who returned in June after missing 11 months because of serious health problems, could meet Sharapova in the quarterfinals.
   A native of frigid, bleak Siberia, Sharapova lives in sunny, idyllic Manhattan Beach, Calif. The 24-year-old Russian citizen not only speaks English fluently, she has no accent. She is engaged to Slovenian Sasha Vujacic, who was traded from the Los Angeles Lakers to the New Jersey Nets last December.
   Formerly ranked No. 1 in the world, the 6-foot-2 Sharapova has fought her way back to No. 5 after undergoing surgery on her right (serving) shoulder in October 2008 for chronic pain.
   "I'm very happy and proud to be where I'm from," Sharapova, an only child, told reporters last month at Wimbledon, where she reached the final after winning the 2004 title at 17. "I know that my family and I have been through many challenges."
   During a tough stretch in 2007, Sharapova wrote in a blog: "I know it's as tough for my fans to handle my losses as it is for me. But let me point something out. I didn't leave my mom at the age of seven for nothing. I didn't spend six hours a day practicing in the Florida sun at the age of nine for nothing. I didn't sleep in little cots for three years, eating oatmeal out of a packet while playing in the middle of nowhere for nothing. All this has helped me build character and there's no better asset than being able to stand up for yourself."
   It all began with the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. Sharapova's parents lived 100 miles away in Gomel, Belarus, and Yelena became pregnant with Maria three months after the explosion. Worried about radiation, the couple moved to the industrial town of Nyagan in western Siberia, and Maria was born the next year.
   Yuri worked in the oil fields for four years and saved enough money to move the family to the resort of Sochi, the hometown of former world No. 1 player Yevgeny Kafelnikov and site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, on the Black Sea.
   One day when Maria was 4, she got bored watching her father play tennis and picked up a racket. Veteran coach Yuri Yutkin was amazed by her hand-eye coordination and offered to work with her. Kafelnikov obtained a child-sized racket, not easy to come by during the breakup of the Soviet Union, for her.
   When Maria was 6, Martina Navratilova spotted her hitting balls at a clinic during the Kremlin Cup in Moscow. Impressed, Navratilova recommended that Maria train at the Bollettieri academy.
   Yuri worked odd jobs in Florida to pay for Maria's lessons until she was old enough to be admitted to the academy. It would be two years before Yelena could join them.
   At 9, Sharapova earned a scholarship to live and train at the academy. She endured constant teasing from roommates twice her age.
   "She was very thin and had something very few have," Bollettieri said. "She was a fierce competitor with tremendous focus. When she was 12, (Tatiana) Golovin, (Jelena) Jankovic and Sharapova were here at the same time. Maria scared the s--- out of them.
   "She is where she is because she's very disciplined. She doesn't pray for you to miss. She goes for her shot. She has had tremendous adversity with her shoulder injury, and she has fought her way through it."
   Bollettieri also credits Sharapova's father.
   "Her daddy did a great job. He didn't know his fanny from his elbow when he came here. But he was smart enough to listen to me and the other coaches. He knew when to get out," Bollettieri said.
   Sharapova won the girls 16-and-under title of the Eddie Herr Championships at 13, made her professional debut at 14 and won her first WTA tournament at 16.
   Showing uncommon poise, Sharapova upset top seed and two-time defending champion Serena Williams 6-1, 6-4 for the 2004 Wimbledon title. Sharapova added the 2006 U.S. Open and 2008 Australian Open crowns before having surgery and missing 10 months.
   Sharapova has struggled with her serve since then but pronounced her shoulder fit during a recent conference call. She was encouraged by reaching the Wimbledon final, in which she lost to Petra Kvitova, a 6-foot left-hander from the Czech Republic, 6-3, 6-4.
   "It gives me a tremendous amount of confidence that I've been doing something right in the last few months and I've been getting better," said Sharapova, who also reached the French Open semifinals on clay, her worst surface, in June.
   Bollettieri was less sanguine.
   "Maria Sharapova got whacked (in the Wimbledon final)," he wrote in the London-based Independent newspaper. "I have never, ever seen that before, and this is a girl I've been watching since she was 9 years old. Kvitova absolutely knocks the stuffing out of the ball.
   "By the end of the match, Maria was five to eight feet behind the baseline. I've never seen her pushed like that before, and there was nothing she could do about it. We have seen a new power emerge in the women's game."
   It's not Sharapova's nature to give up, though. Reflecting at Wimbledon on her injury layoff, she said: "I've had many opportunities to say that I've had enough or that I've achieved plenty, more than I ever thought I would. Yet I still felt there was something missing. I still felt there was a lot more inside of me when I wanted to play.
   "I did many things," continued Sharapova, who enjoys reading and stamp-collecting in her spare time. "I worked on many projects, and I spent holidays with friends and family (whom) maybe I wouldn't get a chance to (see) in a regular tennis season. But at the end of the day, those didn't mean anything compared to what it means to win tennis matches."

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