Sharapova out to win, not prove a point

WIMBLEDON, England -- Call it the burden of extravagant expectations.

For all that Maria Sharapova has achieved as a teenager, winning 11 WTA Tour titles, including her lone Grand Slam win here in 2004, and nearly $6 million in prize money, there's a lingering element around these storied grounds that she's somehow underachieved by failing to subsequently notch a second major win.

Sharapova, now 19 and currently ranked No. 4 in the world, straddles a fine line when it comes to dealing with the demands that come from being the second-youngest winner of the most prestigious tournament in tennis.

"I didn't expect to win Wimbledon at 17 and from that point on I knew it was going to be tougher to win my second one," she said on the eve of this year's tournament.

She then said something seemingly intended to ease the demands for an encore Wimbledon win.

"I've said this before: I'm not at the peak of my career," she said. "To step it up mentally and physically for two straight weeks is something that takes years and years to develop.

"My body and mind are just not [consistently] ready for that at this point."

When Sharapova surprised seven-time Slam winner Serena Williams to win Wimbledon, aged 17 years and 2 months, her punishing strokes and winning smile pushed her already-high appeal with fans and sponsors to a still-higher level.

The result -- the ramping up of expectations to a level that only a few players are acquainted with.

All those demands and transferred fantasies of on-court success and off-court fame could fell a less-grounded player with questionable mental fortitude.

But Sharapova is at times able to shrug off the burden in the same easy way she easily dispatched Anna Smashnova of Israel, 6-2, 6-0 in 51 minutes Wednesday to advance to move a step closer to capture a second title at the All England Club.

"I don't think I have anything to prove to the whole world," she said after her win. "I do this because I love it. I'm not here to show that I'm better than someone or to prove a point."

Last year Sharapova succumbed in the semifinals to eventual winner Venus Williams, a defeat she says "hurt more than any other loss" in her career.

ESPN's Mary Joe Fernandez achieved a large measure of success as a teenager on the women's tour and feels Sharapova is a good bet to break through at Wimbledon this year.

"No one thought she was going to win [in 2004] including Maria, now it's just a question of doing it again," said Fernandez. "She'll say she has nothing to prove but I believe she wants to show she's not a one-Slam wonder and that she's going to win more [major] titles. I believe she will and this would be the perfect place to win another."

Easier said than done with the likes of Venus Williams, Justine Henin-Hardenne, Kim Clijsters and Amélie Mauresmo standing in her way. But if Sharapova plays the sort of freewheeling, unselfconscious tennis that propelled her into the winner's circle here two years ago, she's as good a bet as any of the aforementioned Grand Slam winners to win here.

Says Fernandez, "When she won [here] she was playing fearless tennis … if she can get back to that and just go for her shots and play big and play loose that's when she's at her best."

Sharapova feels much the same way. "Sometimes I think back and wonder why did I win Wimbledon at 17. It wasn't because my game was so good that I was dominating everyone. I was just really fearless out there. I didn't care who was on the other side of the net, what people thought, didn't care about any expectations.

"I blocked that out of my mind every time I played, took my chances and just found a way to win."

She leaves little doubt as to what her priorities are during this fortnight, despite the demands of advertisers, sponsors and fans. While still a teen, Sharapova's someone who just doesn't have the luxury of being able to afford a bad-hair day now and again.

"The only reason I'm here is to hold that plate at the end of the two weeks," she said.

Six more wins over the next 10 days and that's right where she'll be.

Whit Sheppard is a Paris-based sportswriter who is covering Wimbledon for ESPN.com. He can be e-mailed at lobsandvolleys@yahoo.com.