Sharapova shows she’s no Kournikova

Maria Sharapova could be Danica Patrick now. She surely could have been a Go Daddy girl while dabbling in sports on the side. It would have been so easy.

Instead, with her win Thursday in the semifinals at the French Open, Sharapova will move to No. 1 in the world. She came back from career-threatening shoulder surgery. She still fights the yips on her serve at times. And a win in the final Saturday against Sara Errani will give her a career Grand Slam — at least one title in every major.

Sharapova would be just the 10th female tennis player in history to have done that. Even Venus Williams hasn’t done it.

“It’s a pretty nice feeling,’’ she told reporters as she left the court after her 6-3, 6-3 victory over Petra Kvitova. “I did not know that that (No. 1 ranking) would happen again a few years ago. So I’m just happy to be in this position.’’

When you think of Sharapova, do you think of one of the most focused, determined athletes in the world?

She is. She is Killer Barbie.

And this is just to give people a better feel for what they’re looking at. Or, as Nike is already putting it in an ad: “THOSE WHO BELONG AT THE TOP NEVER FORGET THEIR WAY BACK.’’

The balance of sex appeal and athleticism is always a factor in women’s sports. To be honest, plenty of men are watching women’s tennis for the sex-appeal side of the equation. And there’s always a debate about whether selling sex appeal cheapens the women’s sport or just celebrates athletic bodies.

So when someone like Patrick, or Anna Kournikova a few years back, makes huge sponsor dollars without winning anything, it just doesn’t look good. You can’t really expect them to pass up golden opportunities, but it’s hard to say they send the right message to your daughters.

Sharapova does. She won Wimbledon at 17 in 2004 and became the "Credible Kournikova," a supermodel winning Wimbledon. But I think her image hasn’t kept up with her reality, which is of an athlete who never stops fighting, even when it would have been so easy to do it.

“It’s not a show for me,’’ she said. “It’s a career and I take it very seriously."

After her shoulder surgery, she could have just gone the model route. She hadn’t been winning much, but that didn’t stop her from getting a $70 million Nike contract.

That contract, as well as all the attention she gets (maybe even moreso than her tennis), turned her into Serena Williams’ rival. Being real again, plenty of Serena fans resent Sharapova for getting so much despite not having won nearly as much as Williams has. Sharapova is tall, blonde, white and has classic, traditional-model looks.

She will never win as much as Williams, but she has earned her way back to No. 1 in the best way. She has transformed from a potential model-first endorsement queen to a tough-comeback woman, combining championships and looks. That’s rare.

In April, after a photo shoot, Sharapova posted a picture of herself on her Facebook page. She had apparently cut her famous, long, blonde hair. And somehow, that became news. It was seen as evidence that she was putting her sport ahead of her Barbie looks. That move might have even won over some female fans.

Then, a few days later, she posted a note saying that it was just a wig, that she still had her same hair and that she never knew the picture would create such a stir.

Sharapova has an important role in women’s sports, as an example to girls. Tennis is the only women’s game that has broken into the mainstream. Olympic sports provide examples, but only every four years. In some ways, she is among a handful of athletes still helping to define women’s sports.

She now has everything that can make athletes lose their edge, and even had the usable excuse of serious injury.

And her comeback the past four years has been tough. She seemed on the verge of reaching the top last year, but then her serve fell apart at the French Open, and everything fell apart in the Wimbledon final.

She kept on fighting, as usual, though. Sharapova is not just for show.