A Softer and More Compassionate Maria Sharapova

Maria Sharapova laughs as she's given a painting by children from the Children of Chernobyl Foundation during an event at the Acura Classic tennis tournament Monday in Carlsbad.
Maria Sharapova laughs as she’s given a painting by children from the Children of Chernobyl Foundation during an event at the Acura Classic tennis tournament Monday in Carlsbad.

Normally around this time of the year, Maria Sharapova generates plenty talk and gossip whether it’s for a new perfume, a chic fashion shoot or a rumored romantic interest. Remember Andy Roddick last year?

Yet it has been strangely quiet around the Sharapova camp this summer, outside of the criticism that swirled around her withdrawal from the Russian Fed Cup team and her shorter hair that she described as a “tailored chic look.”

Much of the silence stems from her lackluster results this year. Consider that Sharapova, a two-time Grand Slam champion, has not won a title this year.

Last year, she managed to salvage a mediocre year with a victory at the Acura Classic, beating Kim Clijsters for the first time in her career for the title. Sharapova then capped off her summer with the U.S. Open title, beating Amelie Mauresmo and Justin Henin along the way, and getting a thumbs up from Roddick as he passed by her the following day.

The media took notice.

This year, though, fewer eyes are on her as she begins her defense of the Acura Classic and U.S. Open championships.

The talk mostly centers on the Williams sisters, who have re-emerged to take two of the first three Grand Slam titles of 2007, and Henin’s stranglehold on the No. 1 ranking.

“At the end of the day, if you ask the girls on tour if they would have liked to get to the final (Australian Open) and semifinal (French Open) of two Grand Slams in one year, they would be pretty happy,” Sharapova said. “But in my case, because of what I have achieved, it doesn’t sound as good.

“I accept the fact this has not been the most successful year, but it’s not over yet.”

Sharapova, 20, injured her shoulder at the start of this year and has not been able to sustain a high level of play, despite taking a cortisone shot before the French Open. Her serve and confidence have faltered, leaving her without a title through the first seven months of the year.

Now, she’s dealing with a minor foot injury she suffered last week, sending her back to the trainer’s room. She, however, showed little effect of the injury in her opening match Wednesday, beating Tamarine Tanasugarn, 6-1, 6-3, to reach the third round of the Acura Classic.

She said she hopes to notch a victory before leaving for New York.

“I had a serious injury this year, so it’s been a struggle for me,” she said. “But it’s something I’m still working on, still trying to improve. My career definitely is not over. I’ve got many more years and some are going to be better than others and I have to accept that.”

Sharapova, though, hasn’t been moping around her spacious Manhattan Beach home. She has been busy with her role as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Development Program, raising money and awareness for the children suffering from the fallout of the Chernobyl disaster.

In 1986, an explosion at the Chernobyl Power Plant in the Ukraine was followed by radioactive contamination of the surrounding geographic area. Large areas of the Ukraine, Belarus and Russia were badly contaminated and forced the evacuation and resettlement of more than 336,000 people.

About 60 percent of the radioactive fallout landed in Belarus, according to official post-Soviet data, not far from where Sharapova’s family lived.

When the accident happened, Sharapova’s mother was pregnant with her and the family moved to Siberia to escape the radioactive cloud.

“I was clearly lucky not to be one of the victims,” Sharapova said. “My parents could easily have stayed in Belarus and I could easily have been one of those kids affected by Chernobyl. So it’s kind of a blessing in a way to give back.”

Sharapova spent an afternoon this week with about 10 children from the affected area who were visiting the San Diego area. They presented her with flowers, a stuffed animal and a painting of her dog, Dulce.

She was clearly touched.

“On the court, I’m an athlete who loves to win,” she said. “My career has brought me fame and success and I try to take that and acknowledge it and appreciate it. But I also try to give back because I could easily be in a tougher position in life. So things that are very close to my heart are children, my family and the people who are not as privileged and have disabilities.”

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