We Met a Girl Named Maria

This is an inarguable point – there have been a number of incredibly talented Russian women’s tennis players that are also attractive (see Anna Kournikova and Maria Sharapova). One of those amazing women is here at the New Haven Open at Yale presented by First Niagara: the very lovely and very soft spoken Maria Kirilenko.

There is no doubt the 25-year-old is doing something very right with her tennis. That, combined with maturity, has helped her enjoy the best year of her career. She is ranked at a career high of No. 14 in the world and is a genuine contender for a spot in the world top 10.

There is such a fresh look about her, if you think about it, the song “Maria” from “West Side Story” could have been written for her. With that Bernstein/Sondheim classic playing in the background, Maria would be the perfect spokes-model for a TV commercial advertising one of those pure, crisp European cosmetic brands that you figure is going to leave your face feeling fresh and relaxed.

But as apt as that scenario might be for Maria Kirilenko, and as girlie as she is, she is just as happy to be in sweats and a tank top with her hair up having a good time watching football (soccer) on television, reading books such as Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers or Jack London’s White Fang, listening to the rich sounds of a piece of music by Vivaldi or Bach, cooking or just lounging on the couch watching a movie.

If she is cooking, fish would most likely be on the menu (and don’t be surprised if she had tucked her fine blonde hair into a baseball cap and done the fishing herself.)

All of that sounds so wonderful and idyllic but it is becoming rarer these days as the star continues to climb.

Kirilenko had been threatening to make a breakthrough on the WTA Tour for a while now, but she was also overshadowed by other players from her country. However, that stage is now is the past, as the consistency she lacked at times has developed in her game and she is competing with and beating many of the more established names.

Observers of the game started to notice the rise of Kirilenko starting about a year ago. At last year’s US Open she etched herself into the record books when she won the longest tiebreak played in a women’s match 17-15 against eventual champion Sam Stosur. Earlier this year she reached her fifth career final at beautiful Pattaya Beach in Thailand and things started to roll.

At the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells she reached the quarterfinals and backed it up in Miami, making the last 16 in singles and picking up the doubles title.

You would never figure someone with such a slender frame could hit the ball as hard as she can and her movement about the court exudes an element of grace as her long plait bobs around her back.

This year at Wimbledon, Kirilenko had her best showing in a Grand Slam, reaching the quarterfinals.

Just a few weeks after her success at the All England Club, she returned to the same venue to compete in the Olympic Games, an event historically monumental for the Russian people. To win an Olympic medal for Russia is like reaching the top of Mt. Everest. Maria went all the way to the semifinals, falling to her compatriot and French Open champion, Maria Sharapova. In the bronze medal play-off, world No.1 Victoria Azarenka snatched the medal.

However, Kirilenko was not done. Disappointed, sure, but not defeated. She and Nadia Petrova rebounded to win the doubles bronze medal and that dazzling smile on the podium highlighted how much it meant to her.

And the customized car President Vladimir Putin gave her for her triumph was the icing on the cake.

Maria beat Israel’s best player, Shahar Peer, in the first round and received a walkover when her second round opponent, Mona Barthel, pulled out due to illness.

She now faces Olga Govortsova of Belarus for a spot in the semifinal. Govortsova, a qualifier, beat an injured world No. 2 Agnieszka Radwanska to book her place in today’s quarterfinal.

The two have never played, but expect fireworks on court when a spot in the final four of the 2012 New Haven Open is on the line.

By Craig Gabriel

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