Sunday, 19 June, 2005
Maria Sharapova will deploy a dazzling new weapon in her defence of the Ladies' Singles title at this year's Wimbledon Championships - tennis shoes encrusted with 18 carat gold specks. "It shines unbelievably. Hopefully it will distract my opponents a little bit," she joked at the traditional Champions' pre-tournament press conference...
Sharapova's shoes - she has 10 pairs at the ready, but expects to wear out just two - should be the least of her opponents' problems. This time last year she was the 17-year-old, glamorous star of Russia's tennis revolution, full of promise but yet to prove she wasn't a Kournikova-style also-ran. But, having followed her Wimbledon triumph with victory at the WTA championships and consistent results on tour through the year, things are different now - and not just on Wimbledon's high street, where her image adorns a giant billboard. Sharapova returns to SW19 as the No.2 player in the world, and the tournament's second seed.
A model of composure, Sharapova is buoyed by the great memories of 2004 and is taking the pressure in her sparkling stride. "Last year I was 17 years old, and who expected me to win? You know, this year I'm 18," she said, worldly-wise. "I've had so much more experience. I love the surface. Obviously there are going to be more expectations. That's absolutely normal. But I'm going to go out and enjoy myself, not worry about anything else that's going on, have fun and just take it all in."
A few wobbly results earlier in the year prompted talk that Sharapova was doing too much, and was in danger of burning herself out. Looking happy and relaxed the day before Wimbledon gets underway, such concerns seem ill-founded. "I've kept a really good balance between my tennis and the other things that I do," she insisted, stressing the importance of the close knit team that surrounds her. If she has a few days off she misses the game and "the competitiveness out there", she said.
Sharapova was beaten in the quarter-finals of the French Open by eventual champion Justine Henin-Hardenne. This enabled her to spend a few days practising on grass before playing at the DFS event in Birmingham, which she won in workmanlike fashion. Having grown to love the surface, she regrets that the grasscourt season is so short, but believes she can adjust better than most.
"Every time I step onto grass I feel confident because I feel like it really suits my game," she said. "You never know what can happen on a certain day. But I feel like I have a bigger advantage against a lot of my opponents and I feel really good, confident."
Brushing aside recent comments by Serena Williams - who opined that she had pretty much beaten herself in last year's final - Sharapova said she didn't fear any one opponent in particular. "I think the level of women's tennis is quite high right now. A player from the top 10, top 20 can be dangerous. You don't see in the first week of a Grand Slam players having 1 and 2 matches all the time." She takes on Spaniard Nuria Llagostera Vives in the first round.
Some things haven't changed from last year, however. On her way to the title in 2004, Sharapova was studying for school exams . This time an algebra exam looms. "Definitely not very fun," she said, sounding more like a typical teenager.
Defending Gentlemen's Singles champion Roger Federer already knows what it's like to defend a Wimbledon title. But as the Swiss player guns for a hat-trick of Wimbledon titles, he too is keen to absorb Wimbledon's unique ambience.
"It's always special to come here, no matter how you play the year before," said the world No.1. "I've got high hopes of doing well again, of course. Everything's been going according to plan really. I had a great week in Halle and my preparation has been all right." He admitted to some first-match nerves as he prepares to take on Frenchman Paul-Henri Mathieu in the opening match on Centre Court on Monday. "I think tension is sort of normal. It will be a relief once the first match is played."
"I think I'll definitely take a look around and say, 'Wow, here is where I lived some great moments already.' I haven't hit a ball here since match point, you know, last year. It's definitely going to be special."
Federer arrived at Wimbledon on a 29-match winning streak on grass, but that doesn't mean he feels invincible on the surface. "I should have lost last week in the first round (at Halle), but sort of came through and won. It's always very, very tough on the grass because it's only a matter of a few points. That's been the difference for those last 29 matches. Hopefully I can keep it alive, especially in the early rounds."
Federer cited No.2 seed Andy Roddick, world No.2 Lleyton Hewitt, and local favourite Tim Henman as the main challengers to the title. Of Henman, he said: "He's got the game to do well here and to maybe win. He's shown how consistent he can be over the years. I think you've got to give him a lot of credit for that, too. He's lost to players who know how to play on this surface. I think he's got quite a tough draw, but he's had that over the years a few times. He handled the pressure very well, so I expect him to go far."
Asked what advice he would give to Henman to help him go further, Federer demurred: "Once I lose, I'll give him an advice. But as long as I'm in the draw, I won't do that."
In his own camp, Federer can call upon the wisdom of Australian great Tony Roche, who has been his part-time coach this year. Roche worked with Federer in Paris and while he didn't plan to stay in Europe for the grasscourt season, he has changed his plans.
"We have the same sort of understanding of how I think I should play," Federer said. "That's good, because I was a little bit worried that he was going to say 'serve and volley' too much or 'stay back' too much. We got that right at least. I'm happy he's here and that we have more time to work together."
Federer has lost just three matches this year - though two of them, perhaps worryingly by his stellar standards, have been at Grand Slams. He admits to being a little tired when he arrived in London, and looking forward to a holiday after the Championships. But the Wimbledon magic promises to keep his winning streak alive a little longer yet. Asked what his shoes are made of, he lifted his foot: "Gold."
It's hard to argue with that.
Written by Adam Lincoln