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Wednesday, April 18, 2007
Happy birthday, Maria

Is it fair to say that someone is at the crossroads of their career at age 20? The obvious answer is "no," unless you play on the WTA Tour, where players forge their legacies before most girls graduate high school.

On April 19, Maria Sharapova will no longer be a teenager. She'll have much to celebrate -- two Grand Slam titles, fame and enough endorsement and prize money to throw one off-the-hook party, without the booze, of course; that celebration is next year.

How is Sharapova's career taking shape now that she's passed the all-important teenage threshold? As usual, the past provides some clues.

Like most champions, Sharapova broke through at a young age. She was only 17 when she demolished Serena Williams to win the 2004 Wimbledon title. Sharapova played like a young Monica Seles. Seles would belt out glass-shattering grunts, and Sharapova shrieked even louder. Seles would go for the lines on big points, and Sharapova played with almost reckless abandon.

At the time, the match felt like a turning point in women's tennis: There would be B.S. (Before Sharapova) and A.S. (After Sharapova). That much happened, of course, but the dominance happened on Madison Avenue. Sharapova didn't go on to rule the game like many other young guns who broke through on a big stage. Seles, for example, was 16 when she won the French Open, and she went on to capture six more Grand Slam titles before her 19th birthday.

Other world beaters had a similar career trajectory. Steffi Graf won her first major at 17, and achieved the Golden Slam (all four majors plus the Olympics) in 1988, when she was 19. At that same age, Martina Hingis was already a five-time Grand Slam champion. There were those who had late starts, most famously Martina Navratilova, who didn't win her first Slam until she was 22 years old. And Arantxa Sanchez, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this July, won the French at 17, and two other majors when she was 22.

Women's tennis has long since changed, and the shelf life of its top players in their prime seems to be shorter than Brad Gilbert's attention span.

So what can we expect from Sharapova? Though you wouldn't know it by looking at her shiny No. 2 ranking, her confidence is shaky at the moment. The yips in her serve are a case study in the mental fragility of even the world's best players, and she clearly doesn't have a Plan B when Plan A -- attack, attack, attack -- isn't working.

Sharapova also has to work on beating the game's elite. She's money to reach the semifinals of any event, but then things get tricky. She is 2-5 against Justine Henin, 2-4 against Serena Williams, and 1-4 against Amelie Mauresmo.

As Sharapova says, she can't hide her emotions, and you can see her recent struggles painfully etched in her face. But you also see her ferocious, Nadal-like desire to win. Will that translate into more Slams? Or will she end up on the career path of, say, Sanchez, with a modest number?

One thing is certain: Only a fool would write off such a talented and driven 20-year-old.