Maria Kirilenko on sharks, her best friends on tour, and hitting with Steffi Graf as a 9-year-old

Russian tennis player and current world #22 Maria Kirilenko may best be known for her beauty, but tennis fans know her as one-half of the best women’s match of the 2011 U.S. Open when she played eventual champion Sam Stosur. On the court, Maria is fierce and competitive, but off, she is feminine, charming and engaging. I had the opportunity to chat with Maria during the Sony Ericsson Open about the time she hit, as a 9-year-old, with Steffi Graf, how she was almost a ballet dancer, and sharks. (Photo gallery at bottom)

What is your most memorable moment on court?

Of course, when I win! There are so many matches … the first tournament that I won was Beijing and that was a big one. There are so many matches. (Smiles) I won twice against [Sam] Stosur, [Maria] Sharapova,[Jelena] Jankovic when she was #3.

What is the best part of being a tennis player?

The best is that you can compete at a good level and that people come and watch you. You play in front of – I don’t know how many people, 10,000 maybe more – it’s the greatest.

If you weren’t a tennis player, what would you be?

Difficult to answer, I don’t know. (Smiles)

Do you have any hobbies on the side?

I mean, before tennis, I was a ballet dancer, and I was good as well. I had a partner and we won first place. So I would be a dancer, maybe. But I like tennis more. (Smiles)

If you could play against any player in history, who would it be and why?

It would be nice to play against Steffi Graf, because when I started to play [pro], she already finished.

Did you ever have a chance to hit with her?

Yes. I was, I think, 9-years-old and she came to Moscow and did a kids’ clinic. They chose the best little girls and that was me as well, so I had a chance to hit with her then.

That was the last time?

Yes, it was the last time! Didn’t happen again yet.

If you are hosting a party, what three tennis players would you invite and why?

Three tennis players? (Smiles).Of course, I’m going to invite my girls, Elena Vesnina, Nadia Petrova, and Victoria Azarenka. We are good friends.

What are two things that you couldn’t live without?

Um, my phone. Yea, the phone is important. (Smiles) And the second … maybe my credit card?! It’s tough to live without. (Laughs)

What is one thing that scares you?

I’m very afraid of sharks. (Smiles)

Do you like swimming in the ocean?

I like, but every time I go to the ocean or sea, I am so afraid. (Laughs)

I’m the same way. When I was little, I used to think there were sharks in the pool.

Oh yea? (Laughs) I have this in my mind as well! It’s silly. (Smiles)

(Sony Ericsson Open photos courtesy of Rachel Vinson of OnTheGoTennis; other photos courtesy of Neal Trousdale. For more photos from the 2012 Sony Ericsson Open by Neal, check out his full gallery on Flickr.)

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