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Thursday, March 8, 2007
Tennis first for Sharapova

Maria Sharapova has the Anna Kournikova problem, and I'm not talking about the stigma of never having won a singles title on the WTA Tour, either. "Shrieky," you've noticed, has won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and she's ranked No. 1 in the world. The problem she has is that she's lean, leggy, blond and pretty. Sponsors stand in line, each one patiently rattling the change in his pocket and talking about the weather until it's his turn to dump a bucket full of dough over Sharapova's head. No wonder so many people can't stand her!

All right, there are legitimate reasons for being lukewarm toward the woman who's the top seed in Indian Wells at the Pacific Life Open this week. There's that unethical coaching-from-the-player-guest-box thing; then there's that incident when she coldly turned her back on badly injured Tatiana Golovin at the Sony Ericsson tournament last March. Shrieky can be snappish, and seems prone to moments of diva-vinity (a condition you acquire when you expect people to jump through hoops for you and mix it with the sense that you're god's gift …).

On the other hand, Sharapova goes about her business in a very straightforward fashion. In fact, suffering, saintly, misunderstood, oversensitive Justine Henin is 10 times more the drama queen, Martina Hingis is more tart, and Serena Williams can be a media event unto herself at a moment's notice. Apart from that Monica Seles-grade shriek she cuts loose after every stroke (drop shot: heeeeee-yah!), Sharapova is as professional and under-the-celebrity-radar as Amelie Mauresmo despite being such a hot marketing property.

And here's something else. Yuri Sharapov, Shrieky's father, is the most toxic tennis dad out there. Dude actually glows. Point a camera toward Yuri and he will find a new way to make a horse's butt out of himself, every time. Yet his daughter continues to stand by him, and you had to have had a heart of stone not to be moved by the touching, nearly pathetic way Shrieky thanked him in her victory speech at last year's U.S. Open. Seem crazy to you? A little twisted? So what. It's their life; the world is full of bizarre family sagas. Move on dot org.

And here's the really ironic part: Sharapova, among the current crop of stars, is the one who most effectively sends the message that she is first and foremost a -- gasp! -- tennis player. Whether it's the commercials in which she appears or the news conferences she holds, an evenhanded interpretation of her message is: I am a tennis player. I work my butt off trying to win and keep my place in a VIP room where, in terms of my natural talent and the appeal of my game, I'm the ugly duckling.

Which brings us back to Anna K. She also worked very hard at her tennis, but people still got all apoplectic if you dared suggest she was an awful little good player. Shrieky causes less sensation but wins more tournaments. Evolution. It's a beautiful thing.