Searching for the Next Big 'Ova'

Who will be the next Sharapova?

The answer is that the next great "Ova" is already here, dancing in and out of the wings.

But you have to take your pick:

Nicole Vaidisova, 18, of the Czech Republic took the Center Court stage this week by defeating the defending Wimbledon champion, Amelie Mauresmo of France.

Daniela Hantuchova, 24, of Slovakia, whose mannerisms on the court greatly resemble those of her Russian rival Sharapova, cut a determined figure here before losing to Serena Williams in three sets the same day.

For this year's Wimbledon championships, the Russians alone fielded 11 women players with the "ova" tag at the end of their names. Add the six Slovaks and 15 Czechs in the same category and it's altogether possible you could stage a terrific international women's championship limited to the "Ovas."

Still, the genuine article remains Maria Sharapova, 20, who is one of the world's top players and hottest endorsement vehicles. She has won the U.S. Open and Wimbledon titles plus 15 major women's tour events and earned nearly $9,386,428 in prize money.

The era of the "Ovas" began with Martina Navratilova, the most successful women's player of all time. Her success set off a scramble among her Czechoslovak countrywomen when she sought asylum in the West in 1976.

The highest-ranking current Czech player is Vaidisova, a long-legged blonde with a blistering serve and powerful ground strokes that propelled her past Mauresmo earlier this year as well at the French Open.

"She's probably gonna make it one day," Mauresmo said yesterday of her victorious rival, indicating that Vaidisova's talents could some day propel to one of the four most prestigious international titles (Wimbledon, Australia, France and the United States).

In four years on the tour, Vaidisova has won $1,771,696 and captured six singles titles, according to Women's Tennis Association records.

"She's a sweet girl," said Hanna Brabenek, a former Czech player who immigrated to Canada three decades ago. Their families are friends, and Vaidisova stayed with the Brabeneks in Vancouver when she won her first major professional title there in 2004.

Brabenek's husband, Josef, coached teams in Czechoslovakia and Canada. He said the East bloc's training methods are among the world's best.

Yet Vaidisova's training has included a stint in Bradenton, Fla., at the Nick Bollettieri Academy, where Sharapova learned her paces as well. Eastern work ethic with a little Western polish.

Hantuchova, too, trained with Bollettieri's coaches, spending two years in Florida before turning professional in 1999. She has earned $4,796,191. Both of her major singles titles came in California at Indian Wells, where she won the women's championship in 2002 and 2007.

Like Sharapova, she is blonde and slender. But the resemblance goes beyond looks.

On court between points, Hantuchova turns her back on her opponent and does a brief two-step that is virtually identical to Sharapova's dance. A second habit they share: When they face a difficult point or a moment of uncertainty, both women stop, stare intently at their racket strings, sometimes fiddle with a string, then move ahead.

Does it matter that all three women are beautiful by conventional standards: blonde, tall, fit and slender?

Not in tennis terms, but advertisers and sponsors jump to associate their products with female sports figures whose physical attributes fit this pattern.

The only blonde, fit, tall and slender "Ova" who failed to reap a commercial endorsement bonanza, of course, was the first "Ova," Martina Navratilova, whose sexual orientation was deemed too controversial by many brands.

Are there any other similarities between today's three high-ranking "Ovas"? Yes, they were all born in April within four days of one another, although in different years.