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Last Updated: Sunday, 10 September 2006, 20:34 GMT 21:34 UK
Sharapova proves her worth
By Piers Newbery

Maria Sharapova
Sharapova was back in the spotlight on Sunday following her victory
The timing could not have been better for Maria Sharapova.

Victory at the US Open came just weeks after a report said that the 19-year-old Russian was the highest-earning tennis player in the world - higher even than Roger Federer.

With a lone Grand Slam victory to her name back in 2004 at Wimbledon, and having lost in five successive Grand Slam semi-finals, there was a feeling she might have already reached the limit of her potential.

On-court potential, that is, because without a racquet in her hand her earning power was going through the roof.

Sharapova was said to have earned more than $25m in 2005, largely through a number of high-profile endorsement deals with major companies.

That put her ahead of Federer, as well as the likes of David Beckham and Ronaldo, and prompted her to say, tongue in cheek: "It's never enough. I always look for more. Bring on the money."

However, repeated failure to back up her vast earnings with a similar level of success in major events brought the dreaded name 'Kournikova' to the fore.

When I was working my way to the top of tennis, I didn't say I was number two, I said I wanted to be number one

Maria Sharapova
Admittedly, Sharapova was only ever going to be an upscale version of her compatriot as she had a Grand Slam win and 12 other titles to her name, while Kournikova never won a professional singles event.

But with her face beaming out of billboards from Japan to London to Los Angeles, tennis was not always the first thing that sprang to mind when people thought 'Sharapova'.

And the only other tennis player in recent years who might have done a Sports Illustrated swimsuit photo shoot, as Sharapova did earlier this year, was Kournikova.

However, no-one who has watched Sharapova regularly since she turned pro in 2001 would doubt her grit and determination to be the best.

Her well-documented journey, aged nine, from Moscow to Nick Bollettieri's famed academy in Florida, and subsequent two-year separation from her mother, toughened her up.

And with her father and coach Yuri Sharapov behind her she won Wimbledon two years ago and made it to number one in the world, albeit briefly, last year.

Maria Sharapova
This can beat any sort of money, any sort of paper

"When I was working my way to the top of tennis, I didn't say I was number two, I said I wanted to be number one," she said recently.

Sharapova has always insisted that her promotional activities were kept to a minimum and were no distraction from her tennis.

But with every Grand Slam that passed the memory of her win at SW19, aged just 17, faded further and the pressure grew on her to repeat the achievement.

It was with all this baggage that she took on world number one Amelie Mauresmo and then world number two Justine Henin-Hardenne in the final stages of the US Open.

She had just one win in seven matches against both women but, just as she had against Serena Williams in that Wimbledon final, Sharapova flourished in the heat of battle.

In the final her movement, game plan, hitting and, especially, serving just got better and better.

Henin-Hardenne was well beaten by the time Sharapova collapsed to the ground at her moment of victory, before leaping and screaming as much in relief as joy.

And with $25m in the bank this victory was about more than money, at least in the short term.

"You can't buy a Grand Slam title, you know," she said afterwards. "You can't buy it.

"There are people around the world that have billions of dollars, but no matter how much they want a US Open title, the only thing they can do is buy some good tennis racquets, get the best trainers out there and work their butt off.

"This can beat any sort of money, any sort of paper."

Still, as she pointed out last month, a couple more big wins can't do any harm.

"Another three Slam titles will bring a lot more than $25m," Sharapova said in August. "They would be worth even more than $100m."

Sharapova thrilled by title win
10 Sep 06 |  Tennis
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09 Sep 06 |  Tennis
Gamewatch: Sharapova v Henin
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