SOCHI, Russia — In 2007, the International Olympic Committee chose a little-known beachfront resort to host the Winter Games. But even at that time, Sochi, Russia, was known to at least a certain fan base as the childhood home of one of the biggest stars in tennis, and today one of the world’s most famous female athletes.
Welcome back, Maria Sharapova.
The 26-year-old superstar, who has won each of the four Grand Slam titles, moved to Sochi at age 2. And she couldn’t be happier the place that holds so many memories from her youth is hosting such a significant global sporting event.
“It’s pretty special, because not many people knew even where Sochi was located on a map when I first arrived in the United States many years ago,” said Sharapova, speaking this week at a Nike presentation near the courts in Riviera Park where she first played tennis. “So when I heard that Sochi was going to present the Winter Olympics this year, I was thrilled because I’ve believed in this city for so long, ever since my childhood.
“I always loved coming back, it was so special to me, it was full of nature. You have the Black Sea, and an hour away you have the mountains, with some of the best ski slopes in the world. So I always encouraged people to come here, from a very young age, but no one had ever heard of this city, so they thought I was quite crazy. But now here we are in this special time.”
Sharapova is expected to participate in Friday’s Opening Ceremony, and will be home long enough to take in her favorite winter sport before she leaves.
“Personally I’m excited to go to the figure skating,” she said. “I grew up in this country watching hockey and figure skating, and I actually dreamed one day I would be a figure skater. But then I grew a few inches, and realized that was not in my future, and that tennis probably suited me a bit better.”
Sharapova is an Olympian herself, having won a silver medal in London in 2012. She also carried the Russian flag in the Opening Ceremony of those Summer Games, becoming the first Russian woman given that honor.
“London was my first Olympic Games in my career,” said Sharapova. “It was extremely special, just because growing up in this country, Olympics was everything.
“When you’re an athlete, to represent your country in the Olympic Games is a huge step in your career. Not only that, but to be able to hold the flag for your nation, and win a silver medal, was very special.”
When you’re sitting around in the Olympic Village, enjoying a cup of coffee, you never know who might swing by. Even the Russian president, perhaps.
US women’s hockey captain Meghan Duggan and a handful of her teammates had such an encounter when Vladimir Putin stopped his entourage and approached the players at their table in the athletes’ recreation center Wednesday.
“He came right up to us, introduced himself, and said, ‘Nice to meet you,’ ’’ Duggan told the Olympic News Service. “When we told him we played hockey, his eyes lit up.’’
So Duggan can chalk off another name off her presidential bucket list. After capturing a silver medal in the Vancouver Games four years ago, her US team was invited to the White House to meet President Obama.
“Being an American and meeting President Obama is close to my heart,’’ said Duggan. “But meeting the president of another nation is a big deal.’’
St. Louis suiting up
Canada’s hockey team picked a healthy Tampa Bay Lightning forward to replace an injured one. Hockey Canada announced Thursday that Martin St. Louis is on the roster to replace Steven Stamkos. Doctors ruled out Stamkos Wednesday because he hasn’t recovered sufficiently from a broken right leg. ‘‘I heard from Stammer that he wasn’t going to go, so I knew it was a possibility,’’ St. Louis told reporters in Tampa Thursday. “We’ve got to understand how hard he’s tried and worked to put himself in the position he’s in and give himself a chance. Obviously he’s disappointed and I'm disappointed for him. Stammer’s a true professional and he’s done everything he can this past month to get back to the Lightning first and hopefully to Team Canada.’’ St. Louis, 38, had 54 points in 56 games entering Thursday night’s game against Toronto . . . Vancouver Canucks star center Henrik Sedin pulled out of the Olympics, saying he’s physically unable to play for Sweden. Sedin recently missed six games because of bruised ribs . . . The Slovakian hockey team will be without Columbus Blue Jackets forward Marian Gaborik, who has not fully recovered from a broken collarbone.
An eye on Rio
The International Olympic Committee said Brazilian organizers will need ‘‘constant supervision and assistance’’ to ensure they overcome delays in preparations for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Rio organizers gave the IOC a progress update Thursday, promising to deliver all projects on time. IOC president Thomas Bach traveled to Brazil last month to urge the government and organizers to speed up. Nawal El Moutawakel, the Moroccan who heads the IOC coordination commission for Rio, said, “Significant and tangible progress has been made.’’ But she added, ‘‘Constant supervision and assistance will be required over the coming months.’’ Bach said Rio organizers need to communicate better to the Brazilian public because ‘‘there is a good story to tell.’’ He told them: ‘‘Back to work, there is no time to lose.”
A record number of dignitaries are coming to the Sochi Olympics, triple the amount that attended the 2010 Vancouver Games, Russian organizers said. Dmitry Chernyshenko, head of the Sochi organizing committee, told the IOC that 65 heads of state and government and international organizations are expected to attend. The IOC said Wednesday it was aware of 44 world leaders coming to the Games. Chernyshenko’s figures could be higher because of the inclusion of international organizations. A number of top world leaders are skipping the Games, however. They include President Obama, French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and German President Joachim Gauck . . . On the eve of the Games, fans who bought tickets on the official Olympic website had to wait several hours in long lines to pick them up. Ticket sales began a year ago on the website, but fans still had to go to ticket centers to pick up the actual paper copies. The only box offices were in Moscow and Sochi. At the Adler railway station Thursday, where four ticket windows were set up, the wait was at least four hours, while it was a six-hour wait at the six stands at the main railway station in downtown Sochi.Material from Associated Press was used in this report; Scott Thurston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Globethurston