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Sharapova always has focus on tennis

But unlike with Anna, the tennis has always come first with Sharapova. To call her competitive is like saying a dog has fleas: It's too obvious to mention.

That's why despite her occasional cockiness, and the ridiculous antics of her father, Yuri (is there some sort of rule that all tennis fathers have to be nuts?), she's so fascinating to watch play.
 
Thursday at the Bausch and Lomb Championships in Amelia Island, she was in a surprisingly titanic struggle in the third round against an obscure Spaniard named Anabel Medina Garrigues, who didn't succumb until a third-set tiebreak.

The match had more twists and turns than a daytime soap, but one thing stood out: Maria Sharapova will fight to the death for every match, even a relatively meaningless one played in the brilliant sunshine of north Florida.

DIGGING AND DIGGING
 
A week ago, Sharapova wasn't even entered here.

Then tournament director John Arrix got a phone call from Sharapova's people, who said that after the world's No. 5 player skipped the Sony Ericsson Open, she wanted a few matches.

"She's a global brand, and probably the most recognizable female athlete in the world," Arrix said Thursday. Naturally, ticket sales took a bump when Nike's darling decided to appear, and Thursday the 4,772 paying customers got quite a treat. Sharapova struggled from the outset, and her body language was terrible. With her slim shoulders sagging and her Prince racket sending so many unforced errors long, Sharapova looked to be in trouble from the start.  Her problem on clay is her biggest asset on other courts: her aggressiveness. The dirt is a surface that rewards the plodding, patient player; the tortoise rather than the hare.

Time and again Sharapova missed Thursday by going for too big a shot. 
 
"I have to play my game, and do what I do best," she said after the 3 hour, 27-minute match, which she won 7-6, 5-7, 7-6. "Of course you change a little strategy sometimes, and I am learning to be more patient.

"But I'm still learning."
 
Sports doesn't build character, it reveals it, the old saw goes. The real revelation Thursday came when Sharapova, who's still not legal to drink (she turns 21 on April 19), fell down 3-0 in the third set. That's when the fighter in her took over. With Yuri noticeably absent from the stands, Sharapova saved four game points at 3-1 to break Medina Garrigues, then reeled off another three games to get to 5-3. Of course, nothing came easy for any of the top players Thursday, and Garrigues, born on the clay of Spain, forced a tiebreaker.

This is precisely the kind of match Sharapova needs to get her ready for the rigors of the upcoming French Open, the only major she hasn't won. Whatever you might think of her personally, any sports fan should appreciate watching Sharapova dig so deep every match she plays. You never get cheated, paying money to watch her.

Which is more than you could say for Miss Kournikova.   

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