Almost a walkover for Sharapova in squealing stakes

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The Independent Online

The steady proliferation of first-class female tennis players from what used to be called the Eastern Bloc was demonstrated by the presence this year in Wimbledon's first-round singles of no fewer than 17 women with names ending in -ova. Admittedly, Miss Casanova - beaten yesterday by Jennifer Capriati - is Swiss. But the rest all come from the old Warsaw Pact countries, albeit by way, more often than not, of tennis academies in Florida and California.

Of these, the youngest and arguably the most promising is Maria Sharapova, who only recently turned 16 and yesterday accounted for the highly regarded 18-year-old American, Ashley Harkleroad, 6-2, 6-1. It was the first time either woman had played at Wimbledon - if "woman" Sharapova can be called.

It will be almost five years before she is legally able, in her adopted country, to toast her success with an alcoholic drink. And her favourite literary character is Pippi Longstocking.

She and Harkleroad had played each other once before, last year in Pittsburgh, a match Sharapova won in three sets. This was much easier, not quite a walkova, but a formidably slick performance. It was also formidably loud. Sharapova rarely hits the tennis ball without unleashing a cry, a squeal, a shriek or a scream (the technical term is "grunt" but that is one thing it's not), and at the DFS Classic in Birmingham two weeks ago was formally asked by the umpire to pipe down.

There was no such intervention here, but then Harkleroad was not easily overcome in the squealing stakes, giving almost as good as she got. Aurally, what unfolded on court two was remarkably like the soundtrack of a pornographic film. Or so the reporter from The Guardian assured me.

The man from The Guardian was there, along with men from just about every other newspaper you care to name, and some you'd struggle to pronounce, because Sharapova v Harkleroad had been billed as the battle of the babes, not least in these pages by Sharapova's former mentor Nick Bollettieri.

Certainly, they are two highly attractive young blondes, although I felt I could set at least one foot on the moral high ground, having sat in a sparsely populated press area throughout the previous match on Court Two, between last year's finalist David Nalbandian, and Vladimir Voltchkov. Only during the last few games of that match did the press seats fill up, until soon it was hard to see the court over and round, if my media colleagues will forgive me, an array of bald patches and middle-aged spread. No grubby raincoats, though; it was far too hot.

With her opening serve in the opening game, an ace measured at 97mph, Sharapova signalled her intentions. For a reed-thin, coltish 16-year-old, she hits the ball uncommonly hard. She also plays with uncommon focus, angrily rebuking herself for missed opportunities by slapping her thigh like the principal boy in Jack and the Beanstalk - which caused the man from the Daily Mail to shift uncomfortably in his seat. "C'mon," she yelled at herself. Although born in Siberia, she has lived in the United States more than half her life. Indeed, it was the greatest -ova of all, Martina Navratilova, who reportedly spotted her playing and arranged for her to join Bollettieri's academy.

She was manifestly well taught by Bollettieri, but he doesn't take credit for the noise, which she has been making since she first started hitting a tennis ball, aged four. These days she even has different noises for different shots, and the crowd on Court Two heard the full repertoire.

However, as dominant as Sharapova was, the scoreline reflected unfairly on Harkleroad, who played with spirit and no little talent. Some of the baseline rallies were wonderful, and although volleys were rarer than dodo eggs, both players revealed an exquisite touch on their infrequent journeys to the net.

But the American double-faulted to lose the the sixth game of the first set, and never again looked like staying in touch. Sharapova, egged on by her father who kept yelling "bueno baby" rather to the annoyance of the people round him, simply got more and more powerful. She dealt ruthlessly with Harkleroad's 68mph second serve to go 5-1 up in the second set, a thumping forehand down the line accompanied by the loudest squeal of the day.

"Louder!" called Harkleroad, with heavy irony, from the other side of the net.

"I didn't hear that," Sharapova said afterwards, referring to Harkleroad's call. She was asked whether the noise she makes on court is distracting or intimidating for her opponents and replied, with the insouciance of youth although not unreasonably, that it was a question for them, not for her.

It was duly put to her opponent. "She grunts loud, everybody knows that," said Harkleroad. "I was just trying to make it a more relaxed atmosphere because I was getting my clock cleaned out there. A lot of girls, before I played her, they say 'you know, her grunt is ridiculous', this, this and this. You know, I mean, I've played her a couple of other times, and it's just normal. She just does it, I don't know why. That's what she does.

"Actually, I grunt pretty loud too. If I'm playing her, I'm trying to be a little more loud."

Harkleroad is being touted as the great American hope of the moment, Sharapova as her Russian counterpart. It certainly looked yesterday as though a meeting between the two in a Grand Slam final might one day be on the cards. But will Sharapova still be Russian? She speaks English like the American that in so many ways she is, but insists that she has no plans to take US citizenship. "I'm really Russian inside of me," she said. "I have Russian blood all the way."