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A girl named Maria looking to reign in New York

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NEW YORK, Aug 25 (AFP) - She reigns on billboards, she reigns in the rankings, and now Maria Sharapova gets one more chance in 2005 to reign on a Grand Slam court.

Sharapova, whose dazzling looks and steely determination have made her a star who transcends her sport, heads into the US Open this week as the top seed thanks to her ascent to the world number one ranking last Monday.

The 18-year-old became the fifth-youngest woman to claim the world number one ranking and the first Russian woman to achieve the feat.

It hardly matters that Sharapova's final step to the summit - she finally displaced American Lindsay Davenport atop the rankings on Monday - came after a week in which she was idled by injury.

"The computer doesn't lie," was Sharapova's blithe assessment as she contemplated capturing the coveted No. 1 slot despite nursing a right pectoral muscle strain that prompted her to withdraw from the WTA Tournament that ended in Toronto on Sunday.

"You have to achieve something in order to get there. It has been an amazing two years."

Amazing, indeed. Sharapova was an unheralded 17-year-old when she became the first Russian to win Wimbledon last year, dethroning two-time defending champion Serena Williams in the final.

She became the second-youngest Wimbledon winner in the Open era behind Martina Hingis, who was 16 when she won in 1997.

She capped her milestone 2004 with a victory in the WTA Tour Championship, the culmination of a season that saw her rocket from No. 32 at the end of 2003 to fourth in the world.

Sharapova stalked the number one ranking for much of 2005, and while she has so far failed to add to her collection of Grand Slam hardware, she has won three WTA Tour titles this year while presiding over a global endorsement empire.

Sharapova's rare blend of grit and grace has made her the world's best-paid sportswoman. She has scooped some 25 million dollars in sponsorships and endorsements, sultry images of the leggy teen selling everything from signature perfume and clothing lines to mobile phones.

Japan recently issued a postage stamp featuring her image, and her decision to wear shoes flecked with real gold at this year's Wimbledon sparked a fashion furore.

While her looks have drawn inevitable comparisons to another blond Russian beauty - Anna Kournikova - Sharapova's on-court exploits have already far surpassed those of her compatriot, who despite her fame never claimed a WTA title.

While Sharapova is right at home at a fashion shoot, it's her blistering shots and gutsy, grunting competitive streak that has won over true tennis fans.

Her climb began in earnest when Sharapova arrived at the age of nine at Nick Bollettieri's Tennis Academy in Florida, accompanied by her father, Yuri with her mother, Yelena, remaining in Siberia for the next two years.

Bollettieri has credited their faith and determination with instilling the same qualities in the young player, who is now reaping the rewards.

"Of course it's a dream come true to be able to win a Grand Slam and be number one in the world," she says. "It definitely puts a smile on your face."



COPYRIGHT 2005 Agence France-Presse. All rights reserved.

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