Nerveless Sharapova ready to rise to final challenge

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It's unlikely that Serena Williams, as she walloped the ball with her sister Venus, noticed the slight little girl across the courts at the Bollettieri Academy in Florida. But Maria Sharapova noticed her. "I did see them practice," the Russian teenager confirmed yesterday. "I was practicing as well. So I did see them. I didn't really watch them, though, because I had my own schedule. Of course, I was trying to concentrate on my work."

It's unlikely that Serena Williams, as she walloped the ball with her sister Venus, noticed the slight little girl across the courts at the Bollettieri Academy in Florida. But Maria Sharapova noticed her. "I did see them practice," the Russian teenager confirmed yesterday. "I was practicing as well. So I did see them. I didn't really watch them, though, because I had my own schedule. Of course, I was trying to concentrate on my work."

It's a typically frank comment and one which is laced with an abrupt, unintentional rudeness that can only be carried off successfully by the exceptionally talented, the exceptionally tough. Luckily Sharapova falls into that category although it is still astonishing that she was not remotely distracted by the two women - girls themselves then - who were redefining women's tennis.

But she had her own schedule. And nothing was going to get in its way - not even the opportunity to indulge in a little adulation. Star-gazing was not part of the programme. Sharapova had her dreams, they sustained her from Siberia to Florida, living practically on her own when just nine years old but, as she says herself, she never closed her eyes to find them.

Indeed Sharapova, who plays in her first grand slam final today, against Serena Williams, has no tennis hero, no role model, no one she aspires to emulate. Invited to comment on Serena she chose to, effectively, talk about herself: "She's a very tough girl and she's a fighter. And we share those similarities, so I'm looking forward to a very tough match."

The qualities she admires most are that "fight", that ability to "figure out a way to win". "Those are the two key things in tennis, you know, trying to find a way to win even when you're down. And she figures that out."

It's a survival instinct, an instinct of a champion, and possessing it also imbues another quality: being nerveless. "I haven't been nervous throughout this whole tournament," says Sharapova, the second youngest Wimbledon finalist in the Open era. "I've just been enjoying myself, so I'm just going to go out and what I've been doing the last six matches, just play my game and enjoy."

Errors, regardless of how obtuse, don't bother her. Nothing, Sharapova would have people believe, bothers her although she revealed that she does not intend to fly her mother, Yulana, over, saying: "I don't want to jinx it". Sharapova just keeps banging, and her winners eventually outnumber the mistakes. Her double-barrelled backhand and forehand are flat and forceful.

Serena, too, was 17 in her first grand slam final - the US Open in 1999. She recalled her feelings yesterday, echoing those of Sharapova. "Nerves? Not really," she said. "I knew I was going to win. I just - I just told myself months before that I was going to win, because I really wanted to more than anything." Even more amazing because four of the matches when to three sets. "It was a tough battle," she said, before adding, tellingly: "It was fun." And she won.

That desire is evident again - in her comments yesterday and, more relevantly, in her raw semi-final victory over Amélie Mauresmo. Some had felt after her successes and her distractions - her interest in fashion, film and so on - and her injuries that it had gone forever. How wrong. "I wanted to keep fighting for whatever I could," said Serena of her match with Mauresmo. "I think that's the most emotion I've ever shown. I felt like Lleyton Hewitt out there." And no one is more determined than the Australian.

It is easy to forget what she has been through and not just in her tough Compton upbringing. Last year there was the murder of her half-sister Yetunde and the surgery on her knee which was followed by eight months in the wilderness of rehabilitation. Her rankings slipped, her pride hurt. After spending 57 weeks as world No 1 she will, even if she wins today's title, be No 14 - five places below Sharapova. With 14 grand slam titles, £9.38m in the bank from prize-money alone, what, Serena may have asked herself was the point? "I really want to be able to lift that trophy up more than anything," she said. It's difficult not to believe her. "I still have those competitive juices and the desire."

Serena does not want to end an era. Despite the difficulties - emotional and motivational - she has faced in playing Venus in the previous Wimbledon finals, she craves her sister's presence.

Instead it is Sharapova who defeated Lindsay Davenport in the last four and there is a potential symmetry in that the American was the last non-Williams to win Wimbledon - again in 1999. Sharapova could book-end that achievement. Additionally, Davenport defeated seven-time champion Steffi Graf, ending her career. Williams is not ready for the same fate.

Sharapova, who becomes only the second Russian to contest a final here, was also reminded that next week she will be the fourth Russian into the top 10, and Serena could not resist her own barbed comment about their rise. "It's like there's so many Russian players," she said. "Every week you have to play an 'ova'. They ask, 'Who are you playing?' I say 'I'm playing an ova today'."

Cheeky, but Serena knows that Sharapova is not any old ova. There has been just one previous meeting - a straight sets victory in Miami as Serena began her comeback. "She's a better player [now]," cautioned Serena. "But I'm a much better player than I was in Miami too." No quarter is given.

Sharapova smashes back any attempt to distract her. She does want to talk about her looks, says money disinterests her, rejects entirely the notion she's a "pin-up" but has, of course, signed up with IMG Models. Her non-tennis activities, she insists, will be limited but, as with Serena, it's all about "feeling good".

"I think that's very important," Sharapova said.

Her opponent would agree. Both players would also concur with another statement - this time from Serena. "A lot of people want stuff, but you actually have to go out and perform," she said. Hopefully, both will do so today. They certainly believe they will.

Comments