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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 August 2005, 12:51 GMT 13:51 UK
From Russia - no love
By Matt Slater

Maria Sharapova
1987 Born 19 April, Nyagan, Siberia
1991 Starts hitting tennis balls aged four
1993 Spotted at Martina Navratilova exhibition in Moscow
1996 Starts at Nick Bollettieri's academy in Florida
2001 Turns pro on 14th birthday
2003 Wins two WTA events, qualifies for Australian and French Opens, reaches no. 31 in world, signs with IMG Models
2004 Wins five events including Wimbledon, named WTA player of the year, tops money list
2005 Wins three events, reaches number one, named richest female athlete by Forbes Magazine
This will not surprise regular readers of the "good book", but it is incredible how many home truths are revealed in the Bible.

Take, for example, the Old Testament tale of the Gileadites and the Ephraimites.

After a great battle, the victorious Gileadites set about catching the fleeing Ephraimites.

With identification a problem, their soldiers asked each person to say the ancient Hebrew word for ear of corn, "shibboleth".

Problem solved: the Ephraimites, with no "sh" sound in their dialect, couldn't pronounce it properly and promptly fell into the trap.

For "shibboleth" then, read "Sharapova" now.

Because in the week that the 18-year-old Maria Sharapova became the 15th player to reach the women's number one spot since rankings started, correct pronunciation is once again the nub of the matter.

Put simply, is the best female tennis player in the world an ad man's dream from Florida called "Sha-ra-POH-vuh" (as the Women's Tennis Association's pronunciation guide advises), or is she a rags to riches story from Siberia called "Sha-RAP-oh-vuh"?

Americans, the world's non-Russian-speaking media and, apparently, Sharapova herself prefer the former. Russian speakers insist it is the latter.

She is more American than Russian - she speaks Russian with a coarse accent
Svetlana Kuznetsova
US Open champion
But is the 2004 Wimbledon champion still Russian?

There are many in the country she left behind aged nine that no longer consider the baseline beauty to be one of their own.

Sharapova was taken by her coach and father Yuri to begin full-time training at Nick Bollettieri's renowned Tennis Academy in Florida.

Tennis folklore states that Yuri had to borrow 400 to do this, and it is widely known that Maria's mother Yelena was unable to join them for two years.

Nine years later, the leggy blonde with a booming forehand and a court-eating stride is a sports sensation....with an American accent, lifestyle and attitude.

Chief among those in the "made in America" camp are Sharapova's compatriots in the higher reaches of women's tennis.

Maria Sharapova
The computer doesn't lie - you have to achieve something to get there
When US Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, ranked fifth in the world, was asked who was the most popular Russian player, she said: "Sharapova, of course, but I don't know if you would call her Russian, though.

"She is more American than Russian. She speaks Russian with a coarse accent."

For Anastasia Myskina, the 2004 French Open champion and world number 13, Sharapova's MTV accent is the least of it - it's her Little League father and suspect loyalty to Mother Russia that bothers her.

Not only has Sharapova failed to play in front of her Russian fans in recent years, she has also declined to play for her country in the Fed Cup, the women's version of the Davis Cup.

This, and a perceived slight from the cheerleading Yuri, has riled the patriotic Myskina.

"If (Sharapova) joins our (Fed Cup) team next season, you won't see me there for sure," she said.

For her part, Sharapova is determined to remain true to her roots.

She has repeatedly explained that she skipped the Fed Cup so she could concentrate on becoming number one, and has continued to maintain that she has no plans to become a fully-fleged American.

And she is not without some support from "home".

Shamil Tarpishev, Russia's Fed Cup captain, has backed Sharapova's single-minded assault on the singles scene, while others have cut to the chase in characteristically straightforward fashion.

As a Russian Tennis Federation source told Reuters last year: "(The other players) are just jealous of Sharapova. They resent her sudden fame and fortune."

What he did not spell out, but everybody recognises, is that Sharapova, who turned professional at 14, is not only very good at tennis, she is also very beautiful - a winner with a winning smile that delivered 10m in off-court earnings last year.

Maria and Yuri Sharapova celebrate her Wimbledon victory in 2004
Yuri's 400 gamble paid off large when Maria won Wimbledon
Two years after Anna Kournikova, the first Russo-Floridian tennis starlet with pretensions of sporting AND marketing greatness, gave up on the "hard work" part of that ambition, Sharapova has perfected the blend.

The sacrifices that she has undoubtedly made to reach the top of the tennis tree have all been worth it.

As Sharapova said: "The computer doesn't lie. You have to achieve something to get there.

"It's all been about hard work and dedication and the achievement has been amazing."

Stakhanovite principles such as "hard work" and "dedication" are what separates Sharapova from Kournikova (although her 6ft 2in frame probably helps), but will it ever be enough to endear her to those she left behind?

Having beaten the other eight Russians currently in the top 25 to the number one spot, Sharapova must now convince her compatriots that she is not going to pursue her American dream as far as the likes of naturalised citizens Martina Navratilova and Monica Seles did.

Until she does the girl from Siberia will have to get used to frosty receptions from home.

Sharapova makes number one spot
22 Aug 05 |  Tennis
Maria's millions
17 Jun 05 |  Tennis

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