Tennis: Ten years on, Sharapova still brightest star

LONDON (AFP) - Ten years ago, Maria Sharapova routed Serena Williams in the Wimbledon final, climbed into the players' box to tearfully embrace her father Yuri and was immediately propelled into a life of staggering riches.

Just 17 at the time, Sharapova was the third-youngest women's champion after Lottie Dod and Martina Hingis.

If she was a virtual unknown in 2004, the statuesque Russian blonde is now the world's most widely-recognised and richest sportswoman, coining in comfortably around US$30 million (S$37.5 million) last year from earnings, off court and on.

"You know, at that stage you're 17 years old and of course you think it was a great tournament. Can I do that again? Can I win more majors? You always have those question marks," admitted Sharapova, after winning a second French Open and fifth Grand Slam event in Paris this month.

"Ten years later and to have five under my belt and to keep going, it's quite emotional."

Ten years before her life-changing Wimbledon afternoon, Sharapova, leaving her mother behind in Russia, had headed for the famed Bollettieri tennis academy in Forida.

Neither she nor father Yuri spoke any English and they arrived in the United States with just US$700. He took a string of manual jobs, including washing dishes, to make ends meet. Those dirt-poor days are long gone.

She now has 32 titles, including five Slams - 2004 Wimbledon, 2006 US Open, 2008 Australian Open and 2012 and 2014 Roland Garros titles.

She was the WTA Championship end-of-season winner in 2004 and 2012 Olympic silver medallist and has been world No. 1.

The Sharapova juggernaut shows no sign of suffering a breakdown although it has hit a few bumps along the way.

In late 2008, she was was forced out of the game until May 2009 due to shoulder injuries. She eventually rebounded by winning the 2012 French Open, completing a career Grand Slam and triggering a string of even more lucrative deals.

In mid-2013, her shoulder flared up once more and she was out of the game for the rest of the year. But her iron will carried her to another French Open this year, triumphing despite playing four successive three-set matches.

Sharapova's determination and single-mindedness have not been always been welcome. Her megaphone grunting and shrieking has caused consternation among fans as well as rivals, leaving the Russian to admit she is close to few players on tour.

As a result, she is never afraid of speaking her mind, a razor-sharp put down never too far away. "Isn't she back in Poland already? When did she get the chance to say that?", she asked when told of Agnieszka Radwanska's criticism of her on-court grunting.

But her most spectacular clash came on the eve of last year's Wimbledon when she and Serena Williams, whom the Russian has not beaten for 10 years, crossed swords over their love lives. "There are people who live, breathe and dress tennis. I mean, seriously, give it a rest," the American told Rolling Stone magazine without naming Sharapova, whose boyfriend is Bulgarian player Grigor Dimitrov.

"She begins every interview with 'I'm so happy. I'm so lucky' - it's so boring. She's still not going to be invited to the cool parties. And, hey, if she wants to be with the guy with a black heart, go for it."

Ouch. Back came Sharapova, who was engaged to former NBA player Sasha Vujacic until they split up in 2012. "If she wants to talk about something personal, maybe she should talk about her relationship and her boyfriend that was married and is getting a divorce and has kids," said the Russian, after Williams was romantically linked with French coach Patrick Mouratoglou.

There has been a thaw in the cold war between the two women, both among the favourites for this year's Wimbledon title but in the meantime the Sharapova story keeps growing.

Coming to the high street in Wimbledon Village this week - her very own pop-up sweet store which sells her own line of candy, Sugarpova.

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