Sports » Sports Feature

Star Power

Maria Sharapova is bringing crowds to the Cellular South Cup.



There are pros and there are stars on the women's tennis tour.

Pros compete for prize money, get free racquets, and practice four to a court in isolation. Stars get appearance money and big-time endorsements and and attract crowds and autograph seekers to their practice sessions as well as their matches.

Maria Sharapova is a star and the favorite to win the Cellular South Cup this week at the Racquet Club of Memphis. Before and after her match Monday night, fans lined up two deep on a rope line from the locker room to the stadium entrance to get a glance or a picture of the 22-year-old former number-one player in the world — and the star of many television commercials. She won her match 6-0, 6-2 and, more important, nearly filled the house on opening night and dutifully met with sponsors and the media on Sunday.

"Think of a question no one has asked me before," she suggested, but fans honed in on her boyfriend Sasha Vujacic, a pro basketball player with the Los Angeles Lakers. Hey, it was Valentine's Day.

In her opening match, Sharapova showed no signs of the 2008 shoulder surgery that knocked her out of competition for several months last year. When she came back, her serve was out of whack, and she had 21 double faults in a loss to Melanie Oudin at the 2009 U.S. Open. Oudin is in the field in Memphis and will play Sharapova in the finals if they both get that far.

Sharapova had three double faults and one ace Monday in a match in which she was not under pressure. She said the shoulder and the serve are almost at full strength.

"It's slowly getting up there again to 118 or 119 miles an hour," she said.

In 2004, Sharapova lost in the semifinals in Memphis but later won Wimbledon at the age of 17. In 2005, she became the first Russian woman to be ranked number one in the world. After that it was "Maria Inc.," with sponsorship deals with Pepsi, Honda, Canon, Motorola, Gatorade, Cole Haan, Tiffany, and Sega, among others. She also has her own line of handbags and jewelry, as befits one of People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People (2005).

She looks thinner than she does on television. She's 6'-2" but her shoulders and upper body looked more runway model than athlete. That is, until she started hitting tennis balls, punctuating shots with her trademark grunt. Her overmatched opponent was pinned back on the baseline and only once ventured to the net, getting passed for her trouble.

Tall women are starting to dominate women's pro tennis, especially in Memphis. The last four Cellular South Cup champions — Victoria Azarenka, Lindsay Davenport, Venus Williams, and Sofia Arvidsson — stand 5'-10", 6'-2", 6'-2", and 5'-9".

There are some real giants among the men playing in the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships as well. John Isner, who won his first match Monday night, is 6'-9" and Ivo Karlovic is 6'-10". Top-seeded Andy Roddick is a mere 6'-2". He plays fellow American James Blake on Wednesday in what could be the tournament's best match. Andre Agassi says in his book Open that it's the trajectory of the ball as much as the speed that gives tall players an advantage.

Isner is playing doubles with Sam Querrey, who is 6'-6". To fully appreciate the power of their 140 mile an hour serves, grab a seat in an endzone if possible. And if you're in the first couple of rows, be ready to dodge.

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