LA Times: Maria’s love of tennis blooms in desert at Indian Wells

LA Times: Maria’s love of tennis blooms in desert at Indian Wells

By Diane Pucin

Maria Sharapova considers the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells a hometown tournament.

The Russian tennis pro has a home in Manhattan Beach, her parents have a home in Topanga Canyon and she even has a favorite Italian restaurant in Southern California, La Sosta Enoteca in Hermosa Beach.

And so it makes Sharapova happy that she will be seeded second to Victoria Azarenka when the women’s tournament begins Wednesday. Men’s main draw play begins Friday.

“I like this tournament because the people come to watch the tennis,” Sharapova said. “As tennis players, when we see fans driving up, see a line of spectators, it’s incredible.”

Sharapova, who turns 26 next month, is ranked No. 3 in the world. She is playing this event for the 11th time; she won in 2006 and lost in the final last year to Azarenka, currently No. 2. Top-ranked Serena Williams is not entered and hasn’t played at Indian Wells since 2001.

It was a relaxed and focused Sharapova who spoke about her continuing love for the game, her intent to win more major tournaments and her determination to figure out how to beat Williams and Azarenka, who tend to overpower Sharapova in big moments.

Williams pummeled Sharapova in the Olympic gold medal match, 6-0, 6-1, last year, and Azarenka beat Sharapova in the Indian Wells final, 6-2, 6-3.

But Sharapova is an international star, one of only two women on Forbes magazine’s list of the 100 highest-paid athletes in the world last year (she’s 26th; Chinese tennis pro Li Na is 81st). Sharapova just finished work on an Evian water campaign last week and she has her own brand of candy called “Sugarpova” that became instantly popular when it debuted last year. According to Forbes, in 2012 Sharapova earned $5.9 million in tournament winnings and $22 million in endorsements.

It isn’t the money that drives Sharapova, though. It is the urge to compete.

She said she still does 20 to 30 minutes of daily rehabilitation work for a right shoulder that was surgically repaired in 2008. Sharapova won Wimbledon in 2004, the U.S. Open in 2006 and the Australian Open in 2008 before her chronically aching shoulder ultimately sidelined her for 10 months and caused her to wonder whether she would ever be a top player again.

In what she describes as one of her happiest moments on a tennis court, Sharapova completed a career sweep of the major tournaments when she won the French Open last year. She also briefly took over the No. 1 ranking after falling outside the top 100 for a time after returning from the surgery.

Her first tournament back in 2009 was at Indian Wells (in doubles), a sign of how much she loves the event, she said.

“You never know about how you will handle something bad until it happens,” Sharapova said. “No one had come back to the top of the game after my type of injury.

“And the serve is just a big part of the game, of anyone’s game, but I felt like I had to go for it and I still feel like I have so many more years, so much energy, eagerness, motivation. So I’m not going anywhere for a while.”