Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sharapova a UN Ambassador

ReutersSharapova donating $100,000 to Chernobyl aid projects on Wednesday. She was made a UN Goodwill Ambassador.
UNITED NATIONS -- Maria Sharapova was named a goodwill ambassador for the UN Development Program on Wednesday and immediately donated $100,000 to aid recovery from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster that touched her family.

Sharapova, 19, said her work for the poverty-fighting agency would have a special focus on helping the area struck in 1986 by the world's worst nuclear accident.

"Chernobyl has a deep spot in me," said Sharapova, the world's top-ranked women's tennis player. "I still have family that's affected. ... This definitely means a lot to me."

On April 26, 1986, a reactor at the electricity-generating plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine, exploded during a pre-dawn test, spewing radioactive clouds over the western Soviet Union and northern Europe. The shattered reactor leaked radioactivity for 10 days and contaminated an area covering 197,683 square kilometers. The Soviet government had to evacuate more than 300,000 people permanently.

Sharapova's pregnant mother and father fled the city of Gomel in Belarus -- 128 kilometers north of Chernobyl -- shortly before she was born in April 1987 in Siberia.

Gomel was one of the areas most affected by radiation, and Sharapova's parents were concerned about its effects on their unborn child. Sharapova said she still has family in Gomel, including a grandmother.

UNDP Associate Administrator Ad Melkert said Sharapova's responsible and healthy lifestyle made her an ideal role model for young people.

Sharapova's money will go to eight United Nations development projects in rural communities in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine directed at youths suffering from the effects of the nuclear accident. The projects include sports and computer facilities and hospitals.

"It means so much to me to be a part of this project because I was sort of part of it as well," she said. "I can't tell you how excited I am. I am probably more nervous right now than I am before a Grand Slam."

Thirty-one people died within the first two months of the Chernobyl disaster from illnesses caused by radioactivity, but there is heated debate over the toll that will be taken over the years. The UN health agency has estimated that about 9,300 people will die from cancer caused by Chernobyl's radiation. Some groups, such as Greenpeace, insist the toll could be 10 times higher.

Some 5 million people live in areas where radioactive particles fell in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.

Sharapova signed a contract with the UNDP, under which she will be paid a symbolic salary of $1 per year for her two-year term. She called it "my proudest contract ever."

Sharapova said her work with the UNDP would extend to other impoverished areas as well, adding that she had always been fascinated with Africa and told the UNDP she wanted to visit.

Sharapova left Russia in 1995 and moved to the United States. She won her first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in 2004 and won the U.S. open in 2006.