It has been seven years since a blond Russian teenager with striking good looks turned Wimbledon on its head.
Now comes 17-year-old Maria Sharapova, who bristles at comparisons to Anna Kournikova yet is impossible to describe, at least outwardly, without reference to their similarities. Both left Russia as pre-teens to train at Nick Bollettieri's Bradenton, Fla., tennis academy. Both turned pro before finishing high school. And endowed with long legs, pouty expressions and cascades of blond hair, both signed modeling contracts soon after.
But Sharapova has no intention of following in Kournikova's spiked heels, signaling at every turn of her young career that she plans to make her name within the boundaries of the tennis court before chasing fame beyond it.
"Whenever I go on court, I just think about my tennis performance," Sharapova said at Wimbledon last week. "I don't think about what I'm going to look like or what people are thinking about the marketing side. This is why I'm here. I'm here to play tennis, and I'm not here to think about anything else."
Sharapova proved her mettle again at Wimbledon on Monday, clawing back from a deficit against veteran Amy Frazier for a 6-4, 7-5 victory that sends her into the quarterfinals. It's her second consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinal, coming just weeks after her strong showing at the French Open.
In a women's game that is suddenly casting about for superstars, Sharapova has emerged as a force to be reckoned with. Think Kournikova, but with heaps more common sense, sharper focus and better match toughness.
Sharapova has already won three singles titles on the women's tour, most recently at a grass-court tuneup to Wimbledon in Birmingham, England. Kournikova, by contrast, failed to win one title in a 10-year career that has become so irrelevant it's unclear whether she has retired or simply faded away.
At 6 feet and 130 pounds, Sharapova is the tallest and youngest among the group of Russians who have rocketed through the women's rankings. There are currently 10 among the top 50, and Sharapova has moved like a bullet among them. A wild-card entry at Wimbledon last year, she entered this year's tournament as the No. 13 seed. With the early-round upsets of French Open victor Anastasia Myskina and finalist Elena Dementieva, she's one of two Russians remaining. Nadia Petrova is the other, but most insiders give Sharapova better odds of advancing to the final.
For starters, there are no glaring weaknesses in her game. She's got a big serve, solid return, powerful groundstrokes, court smarts and a surprising comfort level on grass.
"Power is not the whole game," Sharapova said recently. "You have to have a brain in order to play tennis."
Said 1999 Wimbledon champion Lindsay Davenport, her potential semifinal opponent: "Technically I think she's very sound. She's got a good, hard serve that will continue to develop as she gets older. You watch Sharapova play, and you don't see anything that looks so off, especially for someone young."
Sharapova also has a relatively clear path to Saturday's final, with her most formidable potential opponents, No. 2 seed Myskina and No. 3 seed Venus Williams, ousted early. If Sharapova can get past Japan's Ai Sugiyama on Tuesday, she'll face either Davenport or Karolina Sprem for the right to advance to the final.
"She's a dangerous player, for sure," said former touring pro Mary Joe Fernandez, a commentator for ESPN.
Unlike most of the game's elite players, Sharapova didn't grow up with posters of tennis stars on her bedroom wall or fantasize about playing on Wimbledon's Centre Court one day. Tennis, which she started at age 4, was simply something she was good at. Martina Navratilova told her father as much after the 5-year-old Sharapova hit alongside thousands of Russian children at an exhibition in Moscow.
"She saw me hit a few balls and told my dad I had a lot of talent," Sharapova recalled. "You've got to start somewhere, and that's where we started."
Two years later, her father put $700 in his pocket, took his daughter's hand and moved from Siberia to Florida so she could train with the famed Bollettieri. She didn't speak English and didn't understand what the future held. Worse still, she missed her mother, who couldn't get a visa to accompany them.
Today, Sharapova's life is better. Her family has been reunited. She's fluent in English, granting interviews in her second language with ease. She earned $222,005 in prize money last year and has gotten over the guilt of spending a bit on herself. And apart from finishing her high school exams (she's studying for tests in sociology, English and math), she insists she feels no pressure at all entering Tuesday's quarterfinal on Wimbledon's Centre Court.
"Who has an opportunity in life like I do right now, at the age that I am?" Sharapova asked after Monday's victory. "Not too many people. If I feel I have too much pressure, I'll just leave. I mean, I'm 17 years old. What do I have to lose in this world?"