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Sharapova Named UN Goodwill Ambassador

The United Nations development aid agency has appointed tennis star Maria Sharapova as a goodwill ambassador. From U.N. headquarters, VOA's Peter Heinlein reports Ms. Sharapova made a cash donation to help with Chernobyl recovery projects.

Maria Sharapova has come a long way in her 19 years. Now she wants to go back to her roots.

The world's top-ranked women's tennis player signed a letter Wednesday committing herself to promoting United Nations aid programs as a celebrity goodwill ambassador.

The teenage tennis sensation has lived in the United States for most of her life. But she was born in Soviet Siberia in 1987, and remains a Russian citizen. Her parents had moved to Siberia to escape the fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear accident a year earlier, near their home in what is now Belarus. Her grandmother still lives in the Belarus town of Gomel, just across the Ukrainian border from Chernobyl.

She said one of her reasons for wanting to become a goodwill ambassador is her concern for the forgotten victims of Chernobyl.

"I was born in Siberia and I moved from Siberia when I was two years old because of Chernobyl, because both of my parents thought for my safety and the radiation that it was not right for me to live there," she said. "So that's why it means so much to me to be part of project because I was part of it as well."

Sharapova handed a check for $100,000 to U.N. Development Program official Ad Melkert. She says the money will be used to help residents in and around Chernobyl.

"This money is going to go toward computer centers in the affected areas of Chernobyl," she said. "They're going to go to sports centers, family hospitals. Places like that."

The UNDP's Melkert said Sharapova's presence will help to shine a spotlight on efforts to help the world poorest.

"We struggle with the knowledge that one billion people don't even have access to a glass of drinkable water, and two billion people do not have access to electricity, and therefore we must work with the private sector, with foundations, with individuals," she said.

Like any teenager, Sharapova giggled when she was introduced to a packed news conference as the U.N.'s newest celebrity goodwill ambassador. Her first reaction was an expression of wonder at her surroundings.

"This is my first time here to this headquarters, and I just got to see all the different settings you see on TV, so it's pretty cool to sit in a chair and feel official for a little bit," she said.

As a UNDP goodwill ambassador, Sharapova joins several other celebrity envoys. Others include Norway's Crown Prince Haakon Magnus, Japanese actress Misako Konno, along with three soccer stars, Ronaldo of Brazil, Zinedine Zidane of France, and Didier Drogba of Ivory Coast.

For her services, the world's highest paid female athlete will earn a salary of $1 a year.