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Tennis champ Maria Sharapova is dreaming about driving Highway 1 to Big Sur

The drive on Highway 1 to Big Sur with its spectacular views is tennis professional Maria Sharapova's favorite drive.

Five-time Grand Slam tennis champion Maria Sharapova isn't just the No. 4 tennis player in the world, a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador and one of the highest-paid female athletes in history.

She's also a Porsche nut, and she loves to drive.

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I caught up with her at the Shade Hotel in Manhattan Beach, where a shiny new Porsche 911 Turbo Cabriolet was parked at the curb.

Sharapova has a house nearby, but this day she needed to be across town, at UCLA, where she was getting things organized for the first tennis tournament she had ever sponsored — Maria Sharapova + Friends, a Porsche-sponsored weekend of tennis events Saturday and Sunday. It features current and former pro tennis players Kei Nishikori, Jack Sock, Madison Keys, Laura Robson, Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish as well as talk show host Chelsea Handler.

Sharapova slipped behind the wheel of the 911, push-buttoned the top down and we rolled away. While she drove, she talked about how much she loves California driving — especially driving the coast. Her dream drive is a weekend run up Highway 1, all the way to Big Sur.

"I grew up near the sea, in Sochi, so I love driving on the coast," the champion said. "I'll drive to Santa Barbara for the weekend. I'll stop and watch the waves. Catching the sunrise by the beach — that's the best drive."

The road from Manhattan Beach to Big Sur includes some of the most scenic driving in the world. The coast highway through Malibu is attractive. The stretch between Ventura and San Luis Obispo is even more so — and with great food stops along the way. (Sharapova didn't play favorites, but my personal picks are La Super-Rica Taqueria on North Milpas Street in Santa Barbara, the Bayside Cafe in Morro Bay and Brad's on Pomeroy Street in Pismo Beach.)

But north of San Luis Obispo, Cambria and San Simeon, it's heaven — mile after mile of winding coastal road, along towering cliffs, across elegant bridges, high above rocky beaches and crashing waves. If the season is right, there are even elephant seals on the beach at Piedras Blancas.

Big Sur's Nepenthe has been serving good food and grand views since 1949. Excellent lodging is just up the road at the venerable Ventana Inn or the Post Ranch Inn, which in addition to colossal coastal views also offers — on staff — both a shaman and a clairvoyant.

Literary buffs can stop in at the Henry Miller Memorial Library, open daily from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. The American novelist made his name writing as a young man in Paris but for decades afterward made his home in Big Sur.

Sharapova is a Porsche ambassador. In her garages in California and Florida, she keeps a stable of the German sports cars. Though she said she learned to drive in a parking lot in a friend's Pontiac, the first car she ever owned was a Porsche Cayenne that she won at a Porsche-sponsored tennis tournament.

But professional athletes don't have as much free time as the rest of us citizens. When she's not on the court or traveling to the court, she's getting ready for the court — training, practicing and working out.

"What people see is the performance side, the entertainment side," she said. "They don't see what leads up to it: the hours you spend preparing, the lonely hours, the early mornings and the late evenings. I don't expect anyone to understand that, what we put our bodies through, and the physicality of the game."

This particular day's job was promoting Maria Sharapova + Friends. When we arrived, the namesake star underwent a costume change, got put through hair and makeup, then sat with pal Handler while both their handlers guided them through a series of media meet-and-greets.

In between interviews, the gracious champ offered me a few minutes on the court. Sharapova kidded me about my old-school, one-handed backhand, fed me a few soft shots and let me hit a winner. Then she went back to work, leaving me to drive home in the 911, hoping that she got to drive her dream drive to Big Sur again sometime soon.

Twitter: @misterfleming

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