Tennis: Russian 'biggest coup' for Auckland

By Dylan Cleaver, Wynne Gray

The signing of Russian star Maria Sharapova has added glamour and grunt to New Zealand's premier women's tennis tournament.

The three-time Grand Slam winner was yesterday confirmed for the ASB Classic, and tournament director Richard Palmer rates it as the biggest coup's in the event's 15-year history.

"This one ranks right up there," he said. "To get a player of her calibre and a person of her calibre ... We're rapt to get her."

There have been several big names that have made it to the Classic, but few with the cachet of Sharapova.

Anna Kournikova had the biggest profile, while Mary Pierce, Lindsay Davenport, Anastasia Myskina, Francesca Schiavone, Amelie Mauresmo and Conchita Martinez have all won Grand Slams.

Sharapova arguably trumps them all. She has a massive profile, has won on the biggest stage and at 23 is still capable of winning the big ones.

Speaking on a conference call from Los Angeles, where she is taking a break from the tour after an injury-wracked 2010, the Russian said she had made a commitment to return to Hong Kong, before opting for the more tranquil surrounds of Stanley St.

"I'd heard incredible things about New Zealand but had never been there, so I just wanted to change it up a little bit," she said.

Before the call started the gathered were under strict instructions not to ask any questions about her recent engagement to LA Lakers basketball player Sasha Vujacic.

The thorny issue of her decibel rating was broached, however, with the Russian showing a deft touch by managing to avoid answering any questions about her grunting.

When asked if she was still hitting the high notes, she simply replied: "Have you seen any of my matches on TV lately ... There's your answer then."

Sharapova was born in Siberia. Handed her first tennis racquet at 4, she showed uncommon talent and by 7 was encouraged to emigrate to the US to join Nick Bollettieri's vaunted academy in Florida.

Money was so tight father Yuri worked as a dishwasher to fund her lessons, and visa restrictions prevented mother Yelena joining them until two years later.

Life has changed a bit since then, with Sharapova regularly featuring in the world's richest sportswomen lists.

She has been plagued by shoulder problems since 2008, having surgery at the end of that year to repair a rotator cuff tear. That meant she could not defend her Australian Open title in 2009 and spent much of that year rehabilitating.

This year has been kinder to her, though she failed to make it past the round of 16 in any of the four Grand Slam tournaments.

After a recent bout of sickness she is taking time off to recuperate, but she remained sure she would be in top shape by the New Year.

MARIA SHARAPOVA

* Born April 19, 1987.
* Grand Slam wins at 2004 Wimbledon; 2006 US Open; 2008 Australian Open.
* 22 WTA titles.
* Made the cover of Sports Illustrated's 2006 Swimsuit Issue and People magazine's 50 most Beautiful People.
* Listed by Forbes as one of the richest female athletes in the world.

- NZ Herald

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