Pierce hunts down Sharapova

Heroine of Wimbledon finds a veteran champion too hot to handle in New York
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The Independent Online

Maria Sharapova, the 17-year-old Wimbledon champion, was eliminated in the third round at the US Open yesterday by the 27th seed, Mary Pierce, who used to be known as "The Body" and showed at 29 that she is far from being a nobody.

Maria Sharapova, the 17-year-old Wimbledon champion, was eliminated in the third round at the US Open here yesterday by Mary Pierce, who used to be known as "The Body" and showed, at 29, that she is far from a nobody. The former French Open and Australian Open champion made her experience count, flustering the seventh-seeded Sharapova, who double-faulted 14 times in losing, 4-6 6-2 6-3, after two hours and four minutes in searing heat.

Sharapova, who wore a black ribbon on her dress as a mark of respect for victims of the school siege in her native Russia, made a promising start, albeit helped by Pierce, who double-faulted and then hit a forehand long when broken for 3-2 in the first set. Sharapova had to save five break points at 4-3, but that did not prepare her for the onslaught on her confidence.

Pierce only made one more double-fault, in the second set, settling into a steady, patient rhythm of play that drained the perspiring Sharapova.

Sharapova double-faulted twice to go 2-0 down in the second set, and was warned by the umpire about receiving coaching signals. "My dad was showing something," Sharapova said, "but I wasn't really looking." She battled hard in the concluding game of the set, saving five break points at 2-5 before Pierce converted the sixth.

Aside from her serving errors, the most disappointing aspect for Sharapova was her inability to build on a 2-0 lead in the final set. Pierce broke back for 3-3, held for 4-3, and Sharapova double-faulted to lose the next game.

"I tried to go for too much on my serve at the wrong times," Sharapova said. "She put pressure on me, and that made me want to hit the ball harder. Those are the things I have to realise and learn from." She added: "With what's going on in the world today, my loss is a little thing. In Russia, it's terrible what's going on."

Pierce, the 27th seed, sank to her knees in prayer after the concluding point. A series of injuries in recent years had threatened her career. "I heard someone saying this morning, 'Does Mary still have the hunger and desire?' I understand people saying those kind of things. But this year I feel great and my game is starting to come together."

A magnificent display by Olivier Rochus in defeating the third-seeded Carlos Moya, 4-6 6-4 6-3 6-7 7-5, took the diminutive Belgian into the last 16 of the men's singles for the fist time after four consecutive first round defeats.

Moya, the former world No 1, who won the 1998 French Open, edged the opening set and fought hard after trailing two sets to one. Rochus would not be denied, thrilling the crowd with some spectacular shot making.

Roger Federer, the Swiss world No 1, seeded to meet Andy Roddick in a reprise of the Wimbledon final, advanced to the fourth round, equalling his best performance at the US Open. Federer, who defeated Fabrice Santoro 6-0 6-4 7-6, did not allow the Frenchman to flourish until the third set tie-break, needing five match points to win it 9-7.

From an American perspective, the opening week has centred around Serena Williams' tennis wardrobe, the empress's new clothes, which are almost as questionable as those purchased by Hans Christian Andersen's emperor.

A New York Times headline yesterday cast Williams as a "fashion queen", although she would probably be moved on by the police if she walked down 42nd Street in the skimpy black outfits and knee-high boots in which she makes her entrance on court.

At least Williams is an attraction, and her attention-grabbing works. Her every move has been greeted by roars of approval, reminiscent of the inane cheering of President Bush's every utterance at the Republican Convention.

Part of the reason for the focus on Williams has been the under-achieving of the American men. At the start of play yesterday, the United States had only one more survivor than Britain in the men's singles, only the 22-year-old Roddick, the defending champion, and the perennial Andre Agassi having advanced to the third round (Agassi progressed to the last 16, defeating Czech Jiri Novak, 6-4 6-2 6-3).

This is the worst performance here by American men since tennis went open in 1968. Three made it to the last 32 in 2000 and also in 2001. The relief was palpable when the 34-year-old Agassi raised an arm in the interview room after his second round match against Florian Mayer, of Germany, and declared, "Let this be a signal: I'm not considering retiring at the end of this event." Agassi was less specific about his schedule for the rest of the season.

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