Rising star is set to sizzle
By DANIEL PACE
RUSSIAN sensation Maria Sharapova launches her bid to become world No.1 next year at the Australian Women's Hardcourts event - and Gold Coast tournament director Liz Smylie couldn't be happier.
World No.4 Sharapova won three titles this year - at Tokyo, Doha and Birmingham - but failed to add any majors to go with her 2004 Wimbledon crown.
She was in striking distance of being world No.1 but ultimately finished fourth, her lowest ranking of the year, and is out to improve on that in 2006
The 18-year-old was ousted in the semi-finals of the Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open and reached the last eight in the French Open.
She will start her campaign to overtake Lindsay Davenport, comeback kid Kim Clijsters and Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo in the WTA world rankings when the Gold Coast event gets underway at Royal Pines on January 1.
Smylie is thrilled that Sharapova, the hottest prospect in women's tennis both on and off court, will contest the first event on the WTA calendar because she knows it means bums on seats.
"Anyone would love to have her playing in their event," Smylie said.
"I've been talking to her agent since about February this year and it really is something special for the event.
"She really does bring that extra little bit and that's why ticket sales are up 20 per cent on last year at this stage.
"She is by far the most recognisable female athlete playing in the world of any sport.
"I have people come up to me in the supermarket and say 'Liz does Maria need a chauffeur, does Maria need a trainer?'."
Shock, horror but the would-be good Samaritans have all been males.
Smylie recalled the hordes of young males who attended the Gold Coast event in 2000 when another Russian beauty, Anna Kournikova, won the doubles title.
"That's what someone like Maria Sharapova does," Smylie said.
"She brings people to tennis who don't necessarily even like tennis or follow it on a regular basis."
The $235,000 tournament will also feature world No.7 and defending champion Patty Schnyder of Switzerland, France's world No.12 Nathalie Dechy and world No.13 Francesca Schiavone of Italy.
Smylie said she was disappointed last year's finalist and local hope Samantha Stosur will skip the tournament to play in the Hopman Cup in Perth.
"I still firmly believe this is the best place to prepare other than anywhere at all," Smylie said.
"I had quite a bit of discussion with her but in the end it was Sam's decision to make.
"There's really nothing I can do about that. I'm disappointed she's not here but I'm very happy with what I do have."