It takes a special kind of 18-year-old to deal with being booed by fans who see you as a cynical veteran ready to use gamesmanship to undermine a younger opponent. Maria Sharapova has won the hearts of most crowds since lifting the Wimbledon title two years ago but in the semi-finals of the Nasdaq-100 Open here on Thursday night the popular vote was cast overwhelmingly in favour of her opponent, Tatiana Golovin.
Sharapova won to book her place in today's final against a fellow Russian, Svetlana Kuznetsova, but only after the most dramatic match of the fortnight at Key Biscayne. Golovin, who is 10 months younger than Sharapova, had saved four match points in recovering from a set and 5-1 down, only for two and three-quarter hours of pure theatre to end in tears when the French teenager suffered a nasty ankle injury and was forced to retire at 4-3 down in the final set.
The crowd had just seen the last American bow out with James Blake's defeat by Roger Federer - the world No 1 went on to play David Ferrer in last night's semi-finals for the right to meet either Ivan Ljubicic or David Nalbandian in tomorrow's final - and were quick to adopt a player who set up home in Miami last year. Golovin lives on the other side of the Rickenbacker Causeway, which connects the island of Key Biscayne with the mainland, and practises regularly on these courts.
Born in Moscow to Russian parents, Golovin moved with her family to Lyon at eight months old and regards herself as French. However, she joined the Nick Bollettieri academy at Bradenton at the age of seven - Anna Kournikova helped her in her early years and Sharapova is a contemporary - and sounds like a typical Floridan. Ranked No 24 in the world, she has already claimed the scalps of top 10 players, including Venus Williams and Elena Dementieva.
Sharapova took the first set 6-3 and looked totally in command at 4-0 and 5-1 up in the second. The match turned, however, when the Russian served for the match at 5-3. Golovin, with nothing to lose, had already started to swing her racket more freely and her bold approach saved four match points in a marathon game.
At 5-4 Sharapova asked for a toilet break. The umpire said she should wait until before her next service game but was overruled by the supervisor. The crowd, who had already warmed to Golovin's whole-hearted display and smiling demeanour, clearly suspected Sharapova was attempting to break her opponent's rhythm and booed her thereafter.
Errors crept into the Russian's game and Golovin took the second set tie-break when she chased down a drop shot to hit a winner which hit the net cord and then the baseline. The drama heightened when Sharapova appealed without success against the line judge's "in" verdict.
Booed again when she took another toilet break, Sharapova showed great resolve to set the pace in the final set, making the only break of serve in the fifth game. Golovin was not giving up and had a break point at 4-3 down, only to turn her ankle chasing a shot into the corner.
After a lengthy delay for treatment she tried in vain to play one more point before being helped off court and taken to hospital. "I felt the pain as soon as I landed on that ankle," she said.
Sharapova said she had not come over to Golovin's side of the court because she thought her opponent had simply been suffering from cramp. The world No 4 shrugged off the fans' antipathy towards her. "It's part of the sport," she said. "It happens everywhere. The crowd needs entertainment."
Kuznetsova, who overpowered Amélie Mauresmo 6-1, 6-4, has a 2-2 record against Sharapova but has lost on their last two meetings. Sharapova, moreover, is in fine form, having won at Indian Wells a fortnight ago and reached a final and two semi-finals in her other tournaments this year.
* The ankle injury which Andy Murray suffered in Miami last week could force him to withdraw from Britain's Davis Cup tie against Serbia and Montenegro in Glasgow next weekend. A scan has confirmed ligament damage and Murray will monitor his progress daily before deciding whether he can playReuse content