Maria Sharapova was the latest 16-year-old to take Wimbledon by storm. But where will she be in a few years?
They keep coming, a new one every month it seems, all of them young and stinging the ball and filling the sport with surprise. They're always sweet to see, so refreshing: After Maria Sharapova, two months past her 16th birthday, served her final ace last Saturday to polish off 11th-seeded Jelena Dokic in straight sets, she dropped her racket onto the grass of Wimbledon's Court 1 in disbelief, her golden hair swaying in the sunlight. She clasped her hands as if in prayer and raised them to the sky.
Few pros are as demonstrative: Sharapova barks at herself after each point, clenches her fist on each stroll to the service line, squeals with each shot. Fewer still show such happiness. How long will it last? As Sharapova blew kisses, Dokic hoisted her bag and hurried away.
Remember Dokic? Four years ago she was that same blonde girl, two months past her 16th birthday, when she rocked Wimbledon by upsetting world No. 1 Martina Hingis in the first round. Two other girls burst through then too—18-year-old Alexandra Stevenson and 17-year-old Mirjana Lucie, both of whom advanced to the semifinals. This year Stevenson lost in the first round, as she has at almost every Grand Slam event since the summer of 1999. Lucie isn't even in the WTA media guide anymore.
Dokic sits through her press conferences now and speaks in a voice full of weariness, unimpressed by the questions. Her father is no longer a part of her tennis life. "We'll see," Dokic says when asked about Sharapova. "We've seen a lot of players come and go."
Despite her three-set loss on Monday to fellow Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova in the round of 16, Sharapova is tennis's hottest property, ranked 88th only on the computer. She was born in Siberia, but at two her family moved to Sochi to flee radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl disaster. When she was six, her father, Uri, had her playing a tournament in Moscow, where Martina Navratilova recommended Nick Bollettieri's Academy in Florida. Two years later Maria and her father arrived in Miami, then journeyed to Bollettieri's uninvited. A coach took her on court; Sharapova knocked his hat off with her first stroke. "Then I hit a few [more] balls, and he called Nick right away," Sharapova says.
She now works with Robert Lansdorp, legendary coach of Tracy Austin, Lindsay Davenport and Pete Sampras, who says Sharapova has "that quality of a champion: She plays without fear." She is nearly six feet tall and pounds the ball from the baseline; she grunts so loudly during play that opponents and observers complain. "At times I say to Maria, 'Just shut up,' " Lansdorp says.
Sharapova had never advanced past the first round of a Grand Slam event until last week, but she carries herself with unusual maturity. She laughs off the photographers, says she finds modeling boring, doesn't fight the damning Anna Kournikova comparison. "Right now it might be my looks or my grunts [attracting the attention], but in a few years, if I become a great player, it's not going to be about my looks or my grunts," she says. "It's going to be about how I became a champion."
Sharapova dispatched Ashley Harkleroad, 21st-seeded Elena Bovina and Dokic before falling to Kuznetsova. "I'm expecting to win," Sharapova said last Saturday. "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. I mean, I'm very happy and I'm very surprised. Yes, I'm very young; I'm 16, and I'm in the fourth round at Wimbledon? How odd is that?"
Not so odd anymore. Wimbledon was full last week of girls who had flashed and faded. While Sharapova charmed reporters with her laugh and walked past the people pointing at her on the grounds at Wimbledon, Dokic huddled with her boyfriend in the players' restaurant and ate undisturbed. Hingis sat at a table in the sun, retired at 22 and grinning as well-wishers stopped by. She had won Wimbledon at 16, but no, Hingis said, she didn't miss the tour. "I got out at the right time," Hingis said, happier even than the girl who just got in.