Russian tennis queen Maria Sharapova may live in Florida and talk with an American accent… but speaking in her home town of Sochi on Wednesday she made it clear her loyalties lie with the country of her birth.
The four-time Grand Slam champion, born in Siberia, spent several years as a young girl in the host city of the 2014 Winter Olympics before moving to America to hone her skills.
Speaking at a Samsung promotional event in the Olympic park, Sharapova — one of the world’s most recognisable sports stars — said it was great to be back in a place that held so many special memories for her.
“This is where I started playing my sport so that is the most meaningful thing for me,” said the towering Russian, dressed in high-heeled black shoes and a long grey coat.
“It’s so special and meaningful for me to have these Winter Games in Sochi, somewhere I spent five, six years of my childhood, where I created so many memories,” the 26-year-old added.
“When I heard that the Olympics would be here I was so happy because I would hope that people would finally know about this city. Because I always believed it was special and unique and I hoped that the rest of the world would finally see that.”
Sharapova said she grew up watching figure skating and ice hockey.
And when asked who she would be supporting if it came to a crunch ice hockey gold medal match between former Cold War foes Russia and America, Sharapova was unequivocal.
“My home country for sure,” she said.
Sharapova might have to hide her loyalties because she is in Sochi working for US broadcaster NBC — signed to offer a unique and personal perspective on the area.
The Russian was the flag-bearer for her country at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Summer Olympics, where she won the women’s singles silver medal.
And she admitted on Wednesday that she would love to play in another Olympics.
“I would like another Olympic experience. London was incredible,” she said.
Sharapova, who endured an injury-plagued 2013, has had a mixed start to the new season, reaching two semi-finals but crashing out in the fourth round of last month’s Australian Open.
Currently ranked fifth in the world, she remains one of the game’s most popular figures and in August topped Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s 10 best-paid women athletes.
She hopes the Games will place Sochi firmly on the map.
“When I went to America from Sochi no one knew about Sochi, where it is,” Sharapova told Russian state television.
“I hope that after the Olympics I will not need to explain any more where Sochi is as everyone will know.”