Sharapova proves her worth with US victory

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The Independent Online

So much for those who thought she was just a pretty face. Maria Sharapova may be the world's highest-earning sportswoman, but anyone who reckons the 19-year-old Russian is more interested in making money from her glamorous good looks than in winning the world's biggest tennis prizes should think again after her performance in the final of the US Open here on Saturday night.

Sharapova drew on all her reserves of mental toughness to beat Justine Henin-Hardenne, 6-4, 6-4, in Arthur Ashe Stadium to secure her second Grand Slam title. The victory will no doubt increase the earning power of a woman who is already said to pocket more than £13m a year - and was presented with a cheque for $1.7m (some £910,000) here - but while she clearly has a good head for business and enjoys her celebrity status, this was a demonstration of her dedication to her sport.

Although the endorsement contracts have multiplied ever since she announced her arrival by winning Wimbledon two years ago, life in an increasingly competitive world at the top of women's tennis has not been so easy. Sharapova had lost in all five of her subsequent Grand Slam semi-finals until she beat Amelie Mauresmo, the world No 1, here on Friday night.

She followed that with a display full of gritty endeavour, if not sparkling tennis, to beat Henin-Hardenne, who had won their last four meetings and would have reclaimed the world No 1 position with victory. Sharapova lost the first two games but gradually took control and ended up an emphatic winner.

"You can't buy a Grand Slam title," she said afterwards. "There are people around the world who have millions of dollars, but no matter how much they want a US Open title all they can do is buy some good tennis rackets, get the best trainers out there and work their butt off. This beats any sort of money, any sort of paper."

Recalling the joy she felt on winning Wimbledon, Sharapova said: "I experienced it two years ago and I knew I wasn't done. I had a lot more in me. That was just the beginning. This isn't the result of preparations I made a couple of weeks before the tournament. This is the reward for preparations I've made ever since I was a little girl with the help of my amazing family."

Before calling her mother from courtside, Sharapova's first reaction was to run into the stands to embrace her father, Yuri, who has been her coach and inspiration ever since she came to Nick Bollettieri's academy in Florida at the age of nine.

Yuri has been criticised for coaching his daughter from the sidelines, which is not allowed in tennis. Earlier in this tournament, it was even said that he was telling her when to drink water and when to eat a banana by doing the same from his seat in the stands.

Television cameras on Saturday caught another of her coaching entourage, Michael Joyce, her hitting partner, putting four fingers in the air. Sharapova appeared to make a similar response.

The Russian refused to talk about the matter afterwards, saying she had been hoping for a "positive" post-match press conference. "I've just won a Grand Slam and the last thing I'm going to talk about is fingers or a banana," she said. "I honestly believe at the end of the day that my life is not about a banana; it's not about what I wear; it's not about the friends that I have." She added: "Can you tell me, if someone tells me to eat a banana, do you think that's the reason why I'm going to win a match?"

The key to the outcome was not bananas but the quality of Sharapova's groundstrokes. While the Russian can be criticised for a one-dimensional game and is not the best of movers, the relentless power and accuracy of her baseline play can wear opponents down. Her serve has also become an important weapon and she did not concede a single break point after the second game. Seventy-two per cent of her first serves found their target and she hit five aces.

The result was popular with the crowd, who loved hearing Sharapova say, in her faultless English and full-on American accent, that New York was her favourite city. "In every part of the city it seems there's a different culture and a different way of life," she explained later. "Some people think it's a madhouse but I love it, because I always want to do things. I can't just sit still and be at home and cook. That's definitely not me."

Henin-Hardenne had no complaints about the result. "I think she played much better than I did," she said. "I gave her too much time to organise her game. I played too short. I wasn't aggressive enough. She didn't give me a lot of opportunities and served better than she probably did in our last meetings. She took her chances." Although the French Open is the only major title Henin-Hardenne has to show for her achievement in reaching all four Grand Slam finals this year - Martina Hingis, in 1997, was the last to do so - the Belgian said she was more than happy with her campaign, which she aims to complete by winning the season-ending Sony Ericsson Championships.

Roger Federer and Andy Roddick were contesting the men's final last night after they both saw off Russian opposition in Saturday's semi-finals. Federer beat Nikolay Davydenko, 6-1, 7-5, 6-4, while Roddick beat Mikhail Youzhny, 6-7, 6-0, 7-6, 6-3.

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