Young star all aces

GEORGE GROSS, TORONTO SUN

, Last Updated: 9:42 AM ET

Russia has Anna Kournikova, who has the good looks but not the talent of a world-class tennis player. Following in her footsteps is 2004 Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova who has both -- world-class talent and good looks.

And Canada, the country that once had Carling Bassett in the top 10 in the world and Helen Kelesi, who was ranked as high as No.13, now has a budding star in 17-year-old Montreal-born Aleksandra Wozniak, who also has both -- talent and good looks.

The 5-foot-8 youngster who started to play tennis at age three under the watchful eye of her father Anthony, a former Polish professional soccer player, is en route to tennis stardom.

Financial difficulties prevent her father, who is still her coach, from travelling with her to tournaments, but do not prevent him from working her hard during training sessions in Montreal.

"My dad is a mechanical engineer and cannot afford to take time off from work to travel with me because we just don't have the money," Aleksandra said.

"Fortunately, I now have a sponsor -- FIDA -- who helps pay for my trips, hotels ad meals. Hopefully, when my results warrant it, I'll find a major sponsor who would make it possible for my dad to travel with me."

Aleksandra's tennis achievements are quite impressive. She won the Canadian junior under-16 championship -- indoor and outdoor -- at age 14. Not long after that, the hard-hitting baseliner also won the under-18 title. She also represented Canada in the last Federation Cup. Aleksandra won five matches in the qualifying tournament in Brazil and also a match in a 3-2 Canadian losing cause against the powerful women of Switzerland.

More reccently, Aleksandra won singles and doubles titles in Mexico, as well as a singles tournament in Costa Rica. Tomorrow she'll fly to Australia for the Australian junior championships in Sydney, where she hopes to do well in view of the fact that she's ranked the No. 4 junior in the world.

Aleksandra oozes confidence on and off the court, a weapon essential for top tennis players. Just ask Martina Navratilova who, at 48, is still taking on women half her age.

During our conversation, I asked Aleksandra if she could become a better player than Bassett, Kelesi, or even Sharapova? It was a loaded question since the British press dubbed Bassett "Darling Carling" when she reached the round of 16 at Wimbledon and the Canadian media referred to Kelesi as "Hurricane Helen" when she climbed up the totem pole of top global players.

"I know I can become a better player," she replied with confidence. "My idol has been and still is Monica Seles. She was the best in the world for some time and I want to be the best. I'm working very hard at it. I'm at school during the day, then practise three or four hours with my dad and other players, plus I spend an hour in fitness training.

"Even though I cannot become a professional player until I turn 18 in September, I can still participate in professional tournaments. My next pro tournament will be either in South America, or in the United States. It'll depend on where I qualify. Right now I'm ranked 493th on the Women's Tennis Association list."

Aleksandra is determined and knows precisely in what direction she is heading. Which is why she has no time to worry about a boyfriend.

"A boyfriend takes up too too much time," she said. "I don't have time to even think about it. I'm concentrating on playing tennis as best I can and doing what my father tells me to do in order to improve my tennis game."

Tennis Canada should be ecstatic with the development of Ms.Wozniak who could become Canada's next Maria Sharapova.

GROSSLY ABBREVIATED

To no one's surprise, Wayne Gretzky was elected almost unanimously into the Ontario Sport Legends Hall of Fame, picking up 25 of 26 votes. Other hockey greats elected were Punch Imlach, the late general manager-coach of the four-time Stanley Cup champion Maple Leafs in the 1960s, and Phil Esposito, the inspiration behind Team Canada's triumph over the Soviet Union in the 1972 Summit Series. Also elected were former Blue Jays star Joe Carter, rowing legend Silken Laumann, Al Hackner's curling rink, Sun columnist Jim Hunt and, in the veterans category, former Argonauts coach Lew Hayman and goaltending great George Hainsworth. The induction dinner is scheduled for June in Toronto.


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