Path to final clearing up for Sharapova

WIMBLEDON, England -- At the end, Maria Sharapova was a hard, hard woman, lashing forehands and pumping fists. And through it all, she wore a steely, narrow-eyed look of -- what was it? Concentration? Determination? Contempt?

But in the dozen steps it took her to reach the net, Sharapova was transformed into a sweet 17-year-old in an elegant white dress. After shaking hands Monday afternoon with the defeated Amy Frazier, Sharapova stood in the middle of Centre Court and blew kisses to the crowd.

This is the delicate line -- between tennis champion and global marketing phenomenon -- upon which Maria Sharapova walks. So far, she's pulling it off.

Sharapova took out Frazier 6-4, 7-5 to reach her second consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinal.

She will gladly talk about her tennis. But when the inevitable comparisons with Anna Kournikova surface, a cloud crosses her shiny pink face.

"People talk about what I wear and compare me to Anna, but I'm not the second Anna," Sharapova said. "I'm the first Maria Sharapova, nobody else."

As they say in tennis, Sharapova's got the goods.

She has a stout serve and a terrific ground strokes from the baseline. When she's on -- which has been most of 2004 -- she can bang sharply angled winners from seemingly awkward positions.

Sharapova has the physical assets to dominate the off-court game, too.

She is a Siberian-born blonde with a lithe 6-foot, 130-pound body that has already graced Gentleman's Quarterly, among other prestigious magazines. She has a contract with IMG Models, which also handles Heidi Klum and Tyra Banks. Her IMG management team has worked hard to position her as the next Kournikova. She never fails to drop by the ESPN studio after she wins her Grand Slam matches, whether she's invited or not.

Brace yourself, America, here comes Maria.

But here's the difference: This girl can play.

Sharapova's already won three WTA tournaments, including Birmingham a few weeks ago. Kournikova, whose tennis career seems to be behind her, did not win one. Kournikova reached the semifinals in her Wimbledon debut in 1997 as a 16-year-old.

The No. 13 seed, who made the fourth round here at the All England Club a year ago, has now done herself one better. Lindsay Davenport, who defeated Vera Zvonereva 6-4, 6-4 on Monday, is probably the only player who could prevent Sharapova from reaching the final and a possible match with Serena Williams.

The Kournikova comparisons, which have been occurring for years, are escalating. At Wimbledon, it has been happening at least once a day.

"Being a tennis babe doesn't do it for me," Sharapova said. "If that's what people are hoping for, then I'm afraid they're going to be disappointed. Of course I like to look good on court, but I'm out there to play tennis, not to look sexy."

She was born in Nyagan, Siberia, and came to America with her family in 1994. At the time, Sharapova was seven and the family's net worth was about $700. She trained at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla., and was driven to succeed.

"She's as nice as pie," Bollettieri says, "but be assured she's tough as nails and on a mission to be the No. 1 player in the world. She will not let anything stand in her way."

In Monday's match, Frazier held a big edge over Sharapova in experience (when Frazier played first Wimbledon in 1988, Sharapova was 1 year old). Frazier was playing in her 62nd Grand Slam event, while Sharapova was in her seventh.

Frazier was up a service break late in both sets and could not weather Sharapova's heavy weapons. Down 5-4 in the second, Sharapova hit a massive forehand pass and Frazier was broken when her half-hearted second serve hit the net a foot below the tape. Frazier's forehand into the net gave Sharapova the match. Then, and only then, did she smile.

"I just try to keep my concentration. I mean, I'm kind of an outgoing person … but I don't really want to let my focus go," Sharapova said. "You know, sometimes I want to smile, but then I think to myself, 'Maybe if you do smile, maybe your concentration will go off a little bit.'

"I don't want to let that happen."

She seems ready to take the next big step, which would be into the semifinals. She meets No. 11 seed Ai Sugiyama in Tuesday's quarterfinals.

"I really think it's the hard work," Sharapova said. "I don't think there's anything else to it. I don't think anything in my game's really missing at this point. It's just experience, it's getting stronger. I've been really focused this year. I know what it takes to achieve winning a Grand Slam and be No. 1 in the world.
"It takes a lot of hard work, and that's what I'm prepared for."

When she lost to Paola Suarez in the quarterfinals of the French Open, she said she was "so happy" to be there. Here at Wimbledon, happy-to-be-here is no longer enough.

Greg Garber is a senior writer at ESPN.com.