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The rest is all tennis. Sharapova has a wicked serve (up to 115 m.p.h.), unusual in the women's game, to go along with a lethal two-handed backhand. She has even sprouted two more inches--she's now 6 ft. 2 in.--which lets her cover more ground with those endless legs. "I wouldn't say I'm in love with them," Sharapova says of the extra inches, adding her signature giggle burst. "Because if I wear heels, I'm like 6 ft. 4 in. It's a little too tall." Even when she was a kid, tennis gurus noticed another extra: her unsurpassed competitive intensity. "Her desire set her apart from the pack," says former top pro Pam Shriver. Now, "she has an aura that floats around, and that's intimidating."
Sharapova's backstory reads like a tall tale. When she was 2 years old, her parents fled their Siberian town, Nyagan, to escape the nuclear residue of Chernobyl. They settled in Sochi, on the Black Sea. At 6, Sharapova was playing at a Moscow tennis clinic when Martina Navratilova spotted her. The legend told her father Yuri that Sharapova should train at Nick Bollettieri's famed tennis academy in Bradenton, Fla., which ripened stars like Monica Seles and Andre Agassi. With $700 in his pocket, Yuri took Maria to Bollettieri's doorstep. "In the beginning it was tough to tell anything about how good she was," says Bollettieri. "She was so skinny that if she turned sideways there was nothing there."
The older girls in the dorms picked on the slight, peculiar 9-year-old, who struggled with English. "I had only myself as company," says Sharapova. "It just made me tougher." That, and insisting on playing against the boys. On the court, she had Yuri, her coach to this day. Her father still barks during matches--"he crosses the line a little sometimes," admits Robert Lansdorp, her stroke coach. And Maria is not afraid to bark back, leading to speculation of a strained relationship. But Sharapova insists we won't see the father-daughter burnout that has plagued so many young women in tennis. "If we get into a fight, it's over in, like, 10 minutes," says Sharapova. "We laugh."
Sharapova's success doesn't have everyone smiling. Sponsors pay a steeper premium for beauty in women's sports--critics call that sexist. Navratilova isn't one of them: "Maria is not taking money out of anyone's pocket. It's not her fault. To me, if you got it, flaunt it."
The issue has also fueled tension between Sharapova and the other Russian tennis phenoms (eight Russians are in the top 20), a few of whom have also won Grand Slams but not enjoyed a Sharapova-like windfall. Some even question her Red blood, given her Florida upbringing. "Her father speaks half-English, half-Russian to her," says Nadia Petrova, ranked ninth in the world. "I was kind of shocked by that because if you're born in Russia, why is he speaking English to her?"
Fellow pros also question how long Sharapova can stay No. 1. "There are a lot of players with a better game," says Serena Williams, who beat Sharapova at the Australian Open in January but lost to her in the '04 Wimbledon and Tour Championships finals. Says Sharapova: "There's always going to be people talking. Words are words, then you actually got to go out and do it."