Maria: The total package

DEAN MCNULTY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:36 PM ET

The story is well-known, how Martina Navratilova first saw a five-year-old Maria Sharapova playing at a Russian tennis academy and approached her parents about bringing the girl to America.

What isn't as well-known is that after Sharapova's father finally managed to save enough money for the pair to travel to the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, he had only $1,000 US left and the price of admission to the tennis school was 10 times that amount.

So, he put the then seven-year-old Maria on the court against one of Bollettieri's coaches.

With her first serve, Sharapova knocked the hat off of the instructor's head.

That shot covered her tuition at the famed school for the next five years.

TWO TITLES

Fast forward eight short years and Sharapova enters the weekend ranked No. 2 in the world and with a pair of Grand Slam titles (Wimbledon in 2004 and the U.S. Open in '06) on her resume.

Unfortunately Canadian tennis fans won't get to see the world's No. 2 player, as Sharapova officially pulled out Saturday after advancing to the semifinal of a WTA event in Los Angeles. The same thing happened last year, when she missed the event in Montreal due to her hectic schedule. She went on to win the U.S. Open two weeks later.

Ironically, Anna Kournikova, the tennis diva Sharapova first drew comparisons to, will be at the Rogers Cup, as part of a Tennis Legends competition.

Of course, the 6-foot-2, 130- pound Sharapova has long since erased the air-brained stereotype of blonde Russian tennis players that Kournikova created so successfully in North America.

Kournikova became a sports icon, not by winning even one professional tennis singles match, but on her blonde bombshell looks and her dating preferences.

By the time Sharapova took the tennis world by storm after winning Wimbledon at the age of 17, comparisons were being made to Kournikova, something the Russian teen wanted no part of and was blunt when asked about it.

"I am not the next anyone. I'm the first Maria Sharapova," she told a British journalist after her win.

She is certainly all that.

Last year, she became the highest-paid female athlete on the planet with an estimated annual income of $25 million. That put her ahead of perhaps the greatest male tennis player ever, Roger Federer.

When asked about what it was like to earn that kind of income she answered, somewhat cheekily: "It's never enough. I always look for more. Bring on the money."

On a recent edition of ABC's news magazine show 20/20 Max Eisenbud, her sports marketing agent, talked about how Sharapova has moved into the company of Tiger Woods when it comes to endorsement contracts.

"With Maria, we're building a brand," Eisenbud said.

In fact, he said shortly after Sharapova's Wimbledon win, he had met with Woods' agent, Max Steinberg.

"Steinberg gave me an idea of the platform we could use," Eisenbud said.

Sharapova bristles, however, at suggestions that she somehow came into all this fame and money without the prerequisite tennis accomplishments behind her name.

"You can't buy a Grand Slam title, you know," she sternly told a BBC reporter when asked about her endorsement deals. "There are people around the world who have billions of dollars, but no matter how much they want a U.S. Open title, the only thing they can do is buy some good tennis racquets, get the best trainers out there and work their butt off.

"This (winning a Grand Slam) can beat any sort of money, any sort of paper."

Yet, for all of her attempts to deflect from her stunning good looks and eye-catching tennis outfits, Sharapova is still not above partaking in a little Anna-like behaviour herself, as she did in an interview with Sports Illustrated.

"People seem to forget that Anna isn't in the picture anymore. It's Maria time now," she said.

All one has to do is check the pages of any glossy magazine these days to see that she hardly is bragging about her star status. Sharapova hawks such brands as Nike, Canon, Colgate-Palmolive, Motorola and, most recently, her own brand of perfume.

And then there was last season's bare-it-all photo shoot for SI's annual Valentine's Day swimsuit edition, where she was portrayed in varying stages of undress in a six-page pictorial.

Also in 2006, Maxim magazine named Sharapova the hottest athlete in the world, for a fourth consecutive year.

One of the best examples of her using her beauty and her tennis skills together was in an ad campaign by Nike leading up to last year's U.S. Open.

It had her walking through the streets of New York City while everyone around her sings I Feel Pretty. She is then shown at Arthur Ashe Stadium, returning a serve with her trademark loud grunt.

Sharapova's life has not been without its controversies, however, such as when she was accused of illegally getting coaching signals from her father during that same U.S. Open.

Critics said that daddy was using a banana to signal message to his daughter during matches.

She responded in typical Sharapova fashion: "I believe, at the end of the day, personally, my life is not about a banana."

But there are still some doubters who feel Sharapova isn't deserving of the accolades that have been heaped upon her.

And one of those is tennis commentator James Clements who, after her defeat last month to Venus Williams at Wimbledon, ripped Sharapova's style of play.

"Sharapova seems reluctant to sway from her extremely one-dimensional baseline-bashing," he said. "While this works against weaker players, it is no match for the Williams sisters with their superior fitness, power and variety"

RACQUET TALKS

Sharapova didn't respond in words to that critique, but she did let her racquet do the talking when she smashed her competition to win the Acura Championship last weekend in San Diego, defeating Switzerland's Patty Schnyder 6-2, 3-6, 6-0 in the final.

Schnyder said that if Sharapova was feeling any ill-effects from Wimbledon, she hid it well at San Diego.

"She is a champion and you know you have to come up with something special when you play her," Schnyder said. "Once she is on a roll, she sticks with it and doesn't give you a chance."


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