DFS Classic: Maria has just enough for final push

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The Independent Online

A week before Wimbledon, the women's champion is under the weather, and yesterday her performance in reaching the final of the DFS Classic was as mixed as the elements. The 18-year-old Maria Sharapova, whose life changed irrevocably on the first Saturday of last July, made hard work of the first set in warm sunshine against France's Tatiana Golovin before rushing through the second as rain threatened for a 7-5 6-1 win.

A week before Wimbledon, the women's champion is under the weather, and yesterday her performance in reaching the final of the DFS Classic was as mixed as the elements. The 18-year-old Maria Sharapova, whose life changed irrevocably on the first Saturday of last July, made hard work of the first set in warm sunshine against France's Tatiana Golovin before rushing through the second as rain threatened for a 7-5 6-1 win.

"Everything's sore," she complained afterwards, but even after playing five sets in two days there is more work to be done; she would like a more even performance in today's final against the world No 20, Jelena Jankovic, to conclude her only grass-court tournament before setting off for SW19.

Sharapova's progress through a low-grade field while defending the DFS title has been less smooth than initial victory over Luxembourg's Anne Kremer on Tuesday promised. In the next round she dropped a set to the 16th seed, Samantha Stosur from Australia, and on Friday briefly looked in danger of defeat when conceding the second set to Eleni Daniilidou of Greece and requiring treatment to a thigh.

A sore throat is also nagging at her, just as it was the night before that epic triumph over Serena Williams 11 months ago. Yesterday, in a repeat of last year's final here against the even younger Golovin, she initially had trouble controlling her opponent's serve and then her own toss, even though there was no wind. Golovin, the No 5 seed, broke her twice in the first set, but was pegged back and could not hold on for a tie-break; serving with her very upright stance in the long 12th game, she saved two set points but conceded a third and the opening set after 51 closely contested minutes.

By that time, the French girl's all-lime outfit was a blob of colour against clouds of dark grey. Broken to love in the second game of the second set, she skidded uncomfortably on the turf and needed further strapping to a foot injury that has been troubling her all week. From there on, the only worry for an increasingly composed Sharapova, unleashing some fierce returns, was whether the rain would arrive before victory. It was a close thing; the first drops were falling in what became the final game, the seventh, in which she closed out a 15th win at Birmingham in 16 matches over the past three years.

"I made a few sloppy errors," Sharapova admitted, "and I'm still not serving great. I'm adjusting to grass, but I feel much better on it. After the final I'm gonna take a few days off, do some shopping, then start practising again and hope for some better weather in London. But I'm not going to kill myself."

Despite a virus and some physical discomfort - "my butt's sore, my thigh's sore" - she appears mentally relaxed, claiming not to be concerned about having missed an opportunity last month to displace Lindsay Davenport as the world No 1: "I have a long career ahead of me. I'd love to be No 1 as soon as possible, but it doesn't bother me."

In the other semi-final, Jankovic's combination of power and subtlety proved too much for a tired Laura Granville of the United States, playing her fifth match of the week and going down 6-2 6-2. The Serbian Jankovic is on a particularly busy schedule of 15 tournaments this year, her best achievement among them having been taking Lindsay Davenport to three sets in the final of the Dubai Women's Open in March. She may be capable of doing the same to a suffering Sharapova.

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