| Sharapova, the new princess of Wimbledon
A story is still doing the rounds that a tabloid reporter was so stuck for biographical material several years ago about the emerging Andrei Chesnokov, that he was forced to resort to artistic licence. The Russian, he wrote, had learnt the game knocking up against the walls of the Kremlin.
Now we learn that the latest willowy, blonde-haired Russian to fall off the Anna Kournikova production line, the Siberian-born Maria Sharapova, did actually hone her skills by hitting balls against a wall, in the Black Sea town of Sochi — playing with a racket donated by Yevgeny Kafelnikov.
A decade or so later, having swapped Russia for Florida and the Bollettieri Academy, she now finds herself the new princess of Wimbledon after sweeping past a former wearer of the crown, 11th-seeded Jelena Dokic, in straight sets. And she’s still only 16. This time you really couldn’t make it up.
But this is a Russian fairytale that still has legs, in more ways than one. The hype that preceded the 6ft teenager’s arrival after her exploits at Edgbaston now appears fully justified after a wonderful display of athleticism, power and mental toughness.
By contrast, Dokic’s mood grew darker by the game, her shoulders more hunched, and she stalked off court within seconds of her defeat as Sharapova stayed behind to blow kisses to the crowd.
This was Sharapova’s first appearance on a Grand Slam show court, but you would never have known it. It was Dokic, in her fifth Championship, who looked the more nervous, perhaps fazed by the sight of 30 or so photographers at courtside with their lenses trained on the Russian. Dokic double-faulted in the opening game to give Sharapova an advantage she never surrendered.
In the second set, a break of serve in the fifth game, which Sharapova won to love with a withering array of fizzing groundstrokes, was enough to wrap up the biggest win of her short career. Next stop will be an all-Russian match with Svetlana Kuznetsova.
If coolness under pressure is what marks out a champion, then Sharapova has it by the bucketful. Fear does not seem to be part of her vocabulary. Each time she needed to raise her game she simply slapped her thigh, muttered something to herself — “I’d say something in Russian, a version of ‘come on’,” she later admitted — and shifted into a new gear, saving four break points on her way to a 6-4, 6-4 victory.
It was a feature of her game that Dokic admitted was the difference between them, saying: “She played the bigger points better.”
But there was another difference between them — an ethereal star quality which, it has to be said, owes as much to her slim figure and ravishing good looks than the fluidity of her baseline play.
Certainly one ball-boy seemed a little hot under the collar. In his haste to gather a stray ball he ran straight into a female line judge, clumping her straight on the chin, and then held up play as he tried to apologise.
Sharapova is already learning about the power of her image. She has taken to wearing dark glasses and a hat to avoid the paparazzi around Wimbledon and, pointedly, chose to turn her chair at right-angles to the photographers to avoid their prying eyes during the changeovers.
She said afterwards: “When I stepped on the court, I was thinking: ‘I’m not going to give her a chance today. That’s it. I want to be a winner today on this court, right here, this moment.’
“When I come into a tournament, I mean, I’m expecting to win. That’s my philosophy. I can’t go to a tournament thinking: ‘Yeah, I’m going to get my ass kicked today, so I might as well just leave.’”
When Sharapova speaks she sounds about as Russian as apple pie, but it is the country of her birth that stirs her soul. She insists her blood is totally Russian and, though she has lived in the United States for half of her life, there is no question where her loyalties lie.
“I have Russian citizenship,” she said. “When the Olympics are on and when I see the Russian flag and the American flag, I want Russia to win so bad. It’s just that feeling. I don’t know why.”
And, at Wimbledon at least, the Russian flag is certainly flying high. Including Sharapova, all four Russian players in action Saturday notched up straight-sets victories to join their compatriot, Vera Zvonareva, in the fourth round.
The latter meets Venus Williams tomorrow in what promises to be an intriguing repeat of their French Open clash, which the 18-year-old Muscovite won in three sets.
It was after Roland Garros that the head of the country’s tennis federation, Shamil Tarpishchev, predicted that Russia would be the dominant force in the women’s game in a few years’ time: on Saturday’s evidence, his young prodigies are growing up faster than even he could have hoped.
The Russians are coming' Hardly. They are already here.