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Failed nuptials instrumental in Harkleroad's maturation

Ashley Harkleroad's on-court composure manifested at the U.S. Fed Cup team's opening-round tie this year, winning both her matches versus Germany. AP Photo/Denis Poroy

Ashley Harkleroad might only be 22, but when it comes to life experience, she's way beyond her peers.

While most young women her age are barely out of college and trying to find their way, this attractive blonde with the slight wisp of a voice has already been an international headline on many occasions.

Nicknamed "Pebbles" because she grew up in Flinstone, Ga. -- one of the those towns that you miss if you blink while driving through -- Harkleroad was instantaneously eyed as a future WTA Tour sex symbol and the next Anna Kournikova by age 16.

Fueled by the attention and an independent streak, Harkleroad started making decisions usually reserved for adults early in her life -- she walked down the aisle with fellow touring pro Alex Bogomolov Jr. and temporarily retired for six months by age 19.

And then she became a divorcee by age 21.

All of it came too soon, Harkleroad recently confessed.

"It wasn't really unfair because I was winning so much," said Harkleroad, of the early fuss made about her, which was based on impressive junior results such as reaching the French Open junior finals and winning the USTA's 18-and-under title just shy of 15. "But I think I was a little bit immature mentally to handle all that."

While waiting out the rain a couple weeks ago during her Fed Cup debut at La Jolla, Calif. -- where she became the unexpected star of the team by winning both of her singles matches and clinching the tie for the USA over Germany -- Harkleroad comfortably chatted about many of the choices she's made.

Like many up-and-coming players who show promise, Harkleroad lacked the necessary sophistication to deal with the difficult decisions of a budding tennis star, such as picking the right agent and signing on to the right sponsorships.

Anointed a tennis phenom, she was offered a prized wild-card entry into the 2001 U.S. Open. She spent the week before at the Nike showroom; the search was on for the perfect outfit for Harkleroad to wear for her Grand Slam coming out party. The selection decided upon: a skintight number that caused photographers to fight for seats on the court to snap pictures. Not surprisingly, little attention was paid to her loss to fellow American Meilen Tu.

"It did feel like a distraction from what I was supposed to be doing out there," said Harkleroad, looking back at the hoopla that once surrounded her. "You know, being this pretty girl that was supposed to be winning WTA titles and being pretty and wearing skimpy clothes -- I didn't get that."

Harkleroad admits her penchant to be defiant was a factor in her teen marriage. But, in contrast, she also cites that the wedding was the result of a rare attempt to conform.

"I'm very rebellious and I do whatever I want to do," Harkleroad said, with a laugh. "But I'm also from a very small town in Georgia and that's the Bible Belt, so living with someone isn't really part of the plan if you know what I mean? So we got married because I was tired of hearing other things, that I was living in sin."

To this day, however, Harkleroad insists her brief marriage was a good thing. And she does credit Bogomolov for pushing her to return to the tour after she walked away in August 2004. (She says she left because it was no longer fun and there was too much pressure to succeed.)

"At the time it wasn't really a bad decision because I think it kind of relaxed me," Harkleroad said. "He was a very good friend of mine and we had a good time for three or four years together. I just enjoyed being around him and he was one of the reasons why I decided to come back and play.

"Definitely when you get married it's a whole different ball game just signing the papers and saying you're married. It just changes things. … You really had to grow up and you really had to be a woman all of a sudden. I think it was good for me and I think it was good for him, too."

Nowadays, Harkleroad has thrown caution to the wind and no longer worries about the possibility of a sullied reputation. She travels with boyfriend, Chuck Adams, a former player who also is her coach of record.

"Now if they know I'm living with someone, they don't tell me anything," said Harkleroad, adding a knowing chuckle to emphasize her point. "They just don't want me to go get married again."

Harkleroad's ex doesn't have quite the same rose-tinted viewpoint of their relationship, but he does acknowledge that it helped him to grow up. Sitting with his current girlfriend, Bogomolov initially danced around mentioning his marriage, but then brought it up on his own.

"I think I got involved with things that I was a little bit premature for like marriage, but at the same time I learned a lot through that and I became more comfortable in my own skin," Bogomolov, 24, said. "It's totally different when you go through something not so good."

Bogomolov described coming through the other side of divorce in tennis terminology: "It gives you sort of a lucky-loser second-breath to life."

As far as her tennis is concerned, Harkleroad is an athletic baseliner, who is not allergic to an occasional foray to the net. Currently ranked 65th, she is 29 points off of her career-high ranking of 39 in 2003.

The recent success she had at the Fed Cup is bound to be added to her brief list of career highlights, and she did well at the Australian Open tune-up tournament in Hobart, Australia, surviving the qualifying to reach the semifinals.

And Harkleroad is clearly happy to be living life in a manner more to her liking these days. Now, she is rarely included in comparisons to the former tennis diva Kournikova, who still is one of the most searched celebrities on the Web.

No longer possessing the high hopes of becoming a top-10 player, Harkleroad is content with reaching the top 25 as a more realistic goal. And she would one day like to go one round further than her best career result to date -- a finals berth at the 2004 Auckland tournament.

"I kind of like to fly under the radar," Harkleroad said. "Now I like to wear different kind of clothes, clothes that hide my body more. When I'm on the tennis court it's about me and myself, and the ball and my opponent.

And she's definitely learned an important lesson or two: "Things change and you have different chapters in your life."

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance sportswriter who spends much of her year covering tennis around the world.