From the torch to the tennis court

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- Tennis players and the Winter Olympics usually don't mix. But Maria Sharapova found herself quite at home at the Sochi Games last month.

That's partly because Sochi was once Sharapova's home. It was the city where her parents fled to escape the damage of Chernobyl, and where she first began hitting tennis balls against a wall, starting a journey that would make her the highest-earning female athlete in the world. Sochi was what the 7-year-old Sharapova left to go to the United States with her father, all so she could hit even more of those tennis balls.

But once in the United States, Sharapova found that hardly anyone had heard of Sochi. So when one of the bidders for this year's Winter Games turned out to be none other than her Russian hometown, the now-famous tennis player saw a chance to get the word out. Her help in promoting its bid reportedly played a role in Sharapova being selected to carry the flag for Russia at the London Olympics two years ago.

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In Sochi, she played an even more prominent role, carrying the torch during the opening ceremony and also serving as a correspondent for NBC during its broadcast of the Games. Although Sharapova's tennis achievements include winning Wimbledon as a 17-year-old and capturing each major once, her moment in the Olympic spotlight was still a personal highlight.

"Probably the torch was the biggest honor I could have received," she told reporters this week at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells. "Just even in the lead up to running on the stadium, the atmosphere before -- being in the green room with everyone that was part of the opening ceremonies and to see everyone come out.

"We're just, you know, creating a little part of our history, to be in the Olympics.

"It was the first time I had all of my family watching me, as well -- my grandparents, both of my parents, were there. So that never really happens.

"It was really unique."

There was also some nostalgia as Sharapova went back to the wall and tennis courts where she first started -- part of her publicity and television commitments during her stay. "Everyone starts from somewhere," she reflected. "My career started in Sochi, and on that wall and those courts right next to it. To be able to look back to where you started and where your tennis roots began, I think for every player is special . . . To be able to celebrate that after so many years is nice."

Her experience as a TV personality was more mixed, requiring a big change in lifestyle. "It's physical and it's challenging, but you're so used to taking care of your body and making sure you get enough sleep and you eat right," she said. "Everything that week is just completely shattered. I mean, you're not sleeping, you're eating terribly, you're drinking caffeine all the time to stay up, to look like you're awake."

She broke off as reporters chimed in, "Welcome to our world."

"I'm sorry," Sharapova said, laughing, realizing she wasn't about to get much sympathy. "Cry me a river."

But though the 26-year-old doesn't see herself going into television after tennis, she did enjoy her behind-the-scenes glimpse. "It was really fun," she said. "I found many different people I got to spend studio time with, the best there is. Bob Costas, to see him do his work -- the repetition and the work.''

The experience included an up-close look at Costas' infamous eye infection. "I was there for the beginning of it all," she recalled, laughing. "Yeah, we filmed that segment and then two days after that he didn't come to work."

She was more circumspect about the controversies involving Russia, both during the Games and shortly afterward with Ukraine. "I think we never want to see conflict," she said. "Politics is a very tricky world, we all know that. I've never personally been very involved in it; I've never had a big interest in it.

"In that moment, when you're out there, it's really a celebration of how hard you've worked to get there and you're not really thinking about anything else, even though [the conflict] is tough to see."

Sharapova admitted that her 6½ days at the Olympics had been an "exhausting" experience. She insisted, however, that it would not have an effect on her tennis schedule. After rehabbing her injured shoulder and training for about five months, Sharapova played three tournaments before taking a break for her Olympic excursion.

But after promoting the Games, as well as her "Sugarpova" candy line the past few weeks, the No. 5-ranked player in the world was happy to return her attention to the court. She is the defending champion at Indian Wells, and she also reached the final at the Sony Open in Miami last year.

"After Sochi, it's great to come back and get back on the court," she said. "Obviously [a] great memory here last year, so it's nice to be back."

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