Three months ago, when the New Haven Parks and Recreation summer camp program asked Maria Sharapova (search) to appear at its charity tennis event, she was merely a promising young player -- one of many.

Of course, all that changed on Saturday, when the 17-year-old Russian with the amazingly long legs shocked Serena Williams (search) to win the Wimbledon (search) women's title and become the game's hottest new celebrity.

But Sharapova didn't renege on her commitments, and yesterday she picked up a racquet for the first time since Wimbledon to hit balls with dozens of thrilled youngsters at the New Haven event.

When she agreed to do it, "I never thought I would win Wimbledon," Sharapova admitted Tuesday.

"But I'm delighted to come here and share the joy."

It may be the last small-time event for Sharapova, who has been swept up in a whirlwind of international celebrity ever since Saturday's big win.

Yesterday morning, she appeared on "Live With Regis and Kelly" and NBC's "Today Show." This afternoon, she'll be on MTV's "Total Request Live."

Her agents say they have been fielding calls from literally hundreds of companies that want to sign tennis' beautiful new champion to endorse their products.

"It's been absolutely out of control," says Max Eisenbud of IMG Models, which has repped the player since she was 9 and has already signed contracts for her with Nike and Prince racquets.

"Everything has changed now, and any plans we had a couple of weeks ago, we have to re-evaluate."

Fashion magazines want the 6-foot Sharapova to model for them -- following the lead of Italian Vogue, which has a nine-page photo shoot with her in the August issue, which hits New York newsstands later this week.

"Everybody loves a winner -- and especially a beautiful one," says Sasha Charnin Morrison, the fashion director for Allure.

"This girl has a grace and elegance we haven't seen in a while. She's stunning."

Sharapova's good looks have prompted many to compare her with another blond Russian, Anna Kournikova, even though Anna never won any major tournaments, let alone Wimbledon.

"People have always made that comparison and called me the new Anna," Sharapova told reporters in New Haven.

"After winning Wimbledon, I don't want to have to answer to those comparisons any more."

She's not likely to.

Since Saturday's match, tennis fans have been talking about Sharapova's powerful stroke and her unflappable on-court intensity.

When Williams got Sharapova down 2-4 in the second set of Saturday's finals, many thought the Russian player would crumble. But Sharapova won the next four straight games to win the championship.

"She's kind of like me," Williams said after the match. "She doesn't back off. She keeps giving it her all." As if that weren't enough to make her a star, Sharapova has a rags-to-riches story as compelling as the Williams sisters' own rise out of the ghetto.

She grew up far from center court, in the western Siberian town of Nyagan, where her parents had moved after the infamous nuclear disaster in their hometown of Chernobyl.

Sharapova was a tennis prodigy whose first brush with greatness came when she was just 6, when nine-time Wimbledon champ Martina Navratilova watched her play in a Moscow tennis exhibition and told her father she had talent.

Three years later, Sharapova's dad used the family's $700 life savings to fly his daughter to Bradenton, Fla., where he managed to get her accepted at the famous Nick Bolletieri Tennis Academy.

After that came years of work.

Serena Williams, another Bolletieri graduate, remembers watching 12-year-old Sharapova "practicing hard" on the school's courts.

But Sharapova's rise through the pro ranks has been swift.

She qualified to play in her first Grand Slam event, the Australian Open, only last year, and was ranked 15th in the world going into Wimbledon.

After her big win, Sharapova jumped to No. 8 in the world rankings.

"Next, I want to be No. 1 in the world," she says. "And then I want to win Wimbledon many, many times."

- with reporting by Brian Flynn

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