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Sharapova will not become Kurnikova
Robert Lansdorf groused about working on a holiday for the first time in 30 years. But there he was, crankier than usual, on Court 5 at the South Bay Tennis Center on New Year's Day with his latest tennis jewel: Maria Sharapova, the long-legged, golden-haired, 16-year-old, Prince-wielding princess from Russia. Maria Sharapova picks up this trophy after losing to Venus Williams in a Hong Kong exhibition, but she has two official WTA Tour titles. "C'mon, rip it," growled Lansdorf, the 61-year-old guru who honed the games of Tracy Austin, Lindsay Davenport and Pete Sampras. "Crosscourt, not down the middle. That's not ripping it. Rip it! C'mon, drive it low and hard." The grueling morning workout lasted almost two hours, but Sharapova was ready for it: She was in bed by 10:30 p.m. New Year's Eve after a low-key celebration with a girlfriend. "Didn't miss anything," she says. After practice Sharapova spent most of the afternoon doing homework on the Internet. Hardly how the sport's latest anointed Russian tennis babe would be expected to kick off a new year. But the teen heartthrob isn't buying into all the glamour hype. "If people want me to be a tennis babe, I'm sorry," she says politely but assertively. "I'm not going to be that." She has her agenda after ending — once and for all, she hopes — talk of being the next Anna Kournikova with two victories at the end of last year's breakout season. She storms into the Australian Open, which begins next week, as a legitimate rising tennis star from Russia — with wins. "She's only going up," former tennis star Austin says. "She's not fearful of the top players." Lansdorf says, "She's something special." The win in Tokyo that put the exclamation point on a season featuring her Grand Slam debut in Australia and a round-of-16 appearance and tabloid splash at Wimbledon was special, too. She was so relieved to separate her image from Kournikova's that she kept fans waiting at the trophy presentation while she called her mother and Lansdorf. "I said, 'Hey, Maria, the only way they are going to compare you to Anna now is in beauty,' " Lansdorf says. Then before the postmatch media conference she told reporters, "Listen, you guys, no Anna questions, right?" "I think I pretty much shut everyone up after I won at Tokyo," Sharapova says of the media-driven comparisons to her winless but equally glamorous countrywoman. "I don't think that's going to be an issue anymore. I hope not. Like I say for the 1,000th time, I'm Maria Sharapova. I'm not Anna Kournikova. I'm not anyone else, even though I respect everyone else on the tour. I'm just doing my own thing." The old, new on one so young Her animated personality, beyond-her-years maturity, powerful game — Sharapova has a deadly backhand — and fearless on-court attitude have caught up to her stunning good looks. Sharapova's breakout season didn't surprise Austin. "It was a question of when, not if," she says. "She just has that mentality and intensity. I haven't seen anyone come up that intense since Monica Seles. That sets you apart. There is no letup. She doesn't allow herself to lose focus. She's pounding her fist and slapping her thigh at 2-1 in the first set. She wants it so badly. She also has the goods. There aren't any weaknesses in her game." What is new, however, as Sharapova heads into Melbourne: • She's quieter. With apologies to tennis chronicler Bud Collins, who nicknamed her the Siberian Siren, she no longer shrieks her way to points. • She's taller. She's over 6 feet and still growing, a liability on the court. "Last year my legs grew so long, and it was tough on me," says Sharapova, whose parents are both under 6 feet. "Now my upper body is growing. Must be the carrot juice." • She's richer. Check out the Jimmy Choo shoes she treated herself to after signing a long-term, seven-figure endorsement deal with Nike. "When I buy something, I don't feel guilty anymore," she says. She also has an ongoing deal with Prince; recently signed a one-year deal with NEC, a laptop company in Japan; is close to becoming the spokesperson for Speedminton, a new computer game; and is mulling several modeling offers. • She's stronger. Her father, Yuri, hired a Russian personal trainer who puts her through a one-hour workout every day. That, says Nick Bollettieri, who took her into his famed Bradenton, Fla., tennis academy at 9 and still along with Lansdorf works with her, is the finishing piece. "The physical part was the link that was missing," Bollettieri says. "That really will help her." What's old: • She still has a burning desire to become the best but now has the patience to work for it. She has rocketed from unranked at the end of 2001 to No. 186 at the end of 2002 to No. 31 this season. Asked about pressure to win a Grand Slam tournament, she says, "It's a little early, but there is no pressure because there's excitement in me, there's a drive that I want to achieve that and nothing is going to stop me." • She still doesn't have a driver's license or boyfriend. There's no time, she says, for either. • She still enjoys drawing her fashion designs, which she shares with friends. "I'd like to get into fashion someday." • She's still getting straight A's, a third-year high school student working toward her degree online. She's never been to a formal school; her mother taught her at home during her elementary school years. "You never see her at a tournament without a book," says her agent, Max Eisenbud. Her latest school project is writing a journal addressing lessons she has learned in life. "Basically, I'm writing the story of my life for my teacher. She wrote me back and gave me 100% and said, 'Oh, my gosh, your life is amazing.' " Letting her game speak for her Maria Sharapova was born in the western Siberian town of Nyagan. Fearing health problems from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, her family left when she was 2 for the Black Sea resort town of Sochi.
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