Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
We're always looking for the "next" superstar, apparently never completely satisfied with the one(s) currently in the spotlight.
In this particular case I'm going to concentrate my efforts on the "next" Anna Kournikova -- 14-year-old Russian Maria Sharapova. I would be remiss if I didn't compare one young Russian beauty to another.
The teenage Sharapova made her WTA Tour debut at the ongoing Pacific Life Open in Indian Wells, California, enjoying sweet victory in her first match before getting a harsh dose of reality in the second.
Sharapova came out of the gates with a satisfying 5-7, 6-2, 6-2 win over young American Brie Rippner, including a 6-2, 6-2 pasting over the final two sets, but a major obstacle awaited her in the second round -- an obstacle by the name of Monica Seles.
The nine-time Grand Slam tournament champion Seles blew the teen sensation off the court in 6-0, 6-2 fashion, which means, like Kournikova, Sharapova to will have to wait to capture her first-ever title.
What the Seles score did not indicate was the number of thunderbolts the two exchanged over the course of their inaugural meeting. Sharapova possesses the groundstrokes to compete on this circuit, but she's not quite on a level with the Monica Seleses of the world just yet.
"I learned there's a big difference between a junior and a pro...a big difference," Sharapova said following the loss to Seles.
Like Anna Kournikova, Sharapova was born in Russia but moved to Florida to hone her blossoming tennis skills.
The Siberian native will continue to play on the ITF junior circuit and likely compete at the Junior U.S. Open later this year.
Sharapova made her WTA debut on the Stadium Court at the beautiful Indian Wells Tennis Garden last week, as the precocious teenager was poised and confident, undaunted by her surroundings or all the sudden attention flying her way.
"Playing my first match in such a big stadium is such a big thing," the youngster said after beating a seemingly-helpless Rippner.
As far as the comparisons to Kournikova, that can be both good and bad. Good in a sense that you can become an international superstar (and dare I say it, sex symbol) with an ever-growing bank account and a chance to appear in a well-publicized music video (see Enrique Iglesias), and bad in a sense that you may never corral a championship trophy and constantly be criticized for having more flash than substance.
But somehow I don't think there are too many people that feel sorry for the still-titleless Kournikova, who's practically a household name despite failing to breakthrough for that elusive first-ever championship.
Sharapova intends to escape the glamorous shadow of Kournikova and prove that she has the goods to become a star in her own right.
Like Kournikova, Sharapova was born in Russia but moved to Florida (at the age of seven) to hone her blossoming tennis skills.
The prodigy/glamour girl was cast under the spotlight at January's Australian Open, where she became the youngest-ever finalist in the girls' portion of the event.
A month shy of her 15th birthday, Sharapova is considered one of the most- promising stars on the ladies' tour, not just because of her game, but also for her striking good looks, which can go a long way in this or any profession. She's already been featured in "Sports Illustrated" and "Rolling Stone," and is being touted as a future top-10 performer, much like "Kourni" was at the same age.
"I respect her," Sharapova said of Kournikova. "But I'm trying to do my own thing and be Maria Sharapova. I'm just trying to be myself."
Sharapova has been playing tennis since she was four, saying: "I just started playing and I'm still playing."
This teen queen also enjoys dancing, singing and modeling...but hey, who doesn't?
As far as the tennis is concerned -- with potential as an indicator -- Sharapova should soar higher than her Russian rival.
The tall blonde stole the spotlight from Kournikova last week, wowing 'em at Indian Wells by advancing to the second round while her 20-year-old compatriot bowed out in her opener against unheralded American Lilia Osterloh.
Sharapova has been impressive on the junior circuit, but because of restrictions on the number of tourneys youngsters can contest, she will have to wait to join the pros full time. She'll be allowed to compete at additional WTA events after turns 15 on April 19.
"I need as much experience as I can get and I will take every opportunity to get that experience," she said.
Russia has recently produced the likes of Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Marat Safin and Kournikova. Is the young Sharapova the future of women's tennis?
We'll just have to wait and see.
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