NEW YORK // They all want to be like Maria. They all want to beat Maria, too. Maria Sharapova's match at the US Open today will come against yet another teenager who looks up to her - 18-year-old Beatrice Capra, an American ranked No 371 who, with a win in that third-round match, would be one step closer to becoming the 2010 version of Melanie Oudin.
As a 17-year-old underdog last year, Oudin's magical run to the US Open quarter-finals started getting serious when she beat her third-round opponent - none other than Sharapova, she of the killer clothes, the high-pitched shrieks, the oversized serves. A three-time winner at the majors, Sharapova is only 23, but can already see a trend developing. More and more, she is playing opponents who grew up with her poster on their wall.
"When they tell me they want to be just like me, not only is it a bit overwhelming and a bit of a shock, it's kind of strange," Sharapova said of her trips to tennis clinics to work with kids. "I mean, I'm certainly far from perfect. I have many things I'm not good at. I always say to them, 'You should want to be better than me or anyone else'." On Thursday night, there was no beating Sharapova. In front of a crowded house in Arthur Ashe Stadium, she dismantled the 68th-ranked Iveta Benesova 6-1, 6-2, leaving fans to chatter less about her game than her outfit, a dark blue dress with a black collar and lapels, giving it a tuxedo-like effect. Perfect for a night match.
At this stage, the 14th-seeded Sharapova is clearly a different player than she was last year, when her loss to Oudin was, in many ways, as much a credit to the teenager's grit as to the Russian's still-recovering right shoulder. This time, it is Capra who gets a shot at Sharapova, the 2006 US Open champion who also has a Wimbledon and Australian Open title. "I think it will be an amazing experience," Capra said.
The teenager, who trains at the Evert Academy in Florida, got a call from the US Tennis Association a few weeks ago, inviting her to a play-off for a wild-card spot. She won it and suddenly found herself in the main draw of a tour-level event for the first time. What a debut. She opened with a win over 95th-ranked Karolina Sprem, then followed it Thursday with a 7-5, 2-6, 6-3 upset over 18th-seeded Aravane Rezai of France.
Those women are not well-known outside the tennis world. Sharapova is. Almost all, of course, get second billing below Sharapova on any day when she's on the program. The next match might be an exception, though: A teenage American underdog versus a 23-year-old Russian sophisticate. New York will be behind the teenager. "I think it's totally understandable," Sharapova said. "We're playing in New York. When you have someone that's coming up, having a great Open, I mean, there's no reason why there shouldn't be lots of support behind her."
* Associated Press