Sporting contests can be decided in a fraction of a second and in the months ahead Ana Ivanovic will probably reflect long and hard on the moment that changed the course of her Australian Open final against Maria Sharapova here yesterday. The 20-year-old Serb had just won three games in a row and was leading 5-4 and30-15 on Sharapova's serve when presented with an easy mid-court ball that demanded to be put away for a winner. Ivanovic chose instead to attempt a drop shot, fluffed the ball into the net and her chance was gone.
Sharapova won the next two points, broke Ivanovic in the following game and went on to win 7-5, 6-3 to claim her third Grand Slam title. "It hurts, I can tell you that," Ivanovic said as she ref-lected on that defining moment. "It was poor shot selection."
We will never know what might have been if Ivanovic had taken the first set, but the harsh truth is that the world No 3, who will climb one place in tomorrow's updated ranking list, did not deserve to beat a resolutely determined Sharapova. It was a mediocre match – the organisers will be hoping for better when Novak Djokovic takes on Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in today's men's final – but the Russian's mental strength and sheer determination shone through.
Even though she is only seven months older than Ivanovic, Sharapova has packed plenty into her 20 years, and the experience gained through her victories at Wimbledon in 2004 and at the 2006 US Open was clearlya help. "When she had that opportunity to break me and win that set, I think experience definitely helped me because I didn't get impatient," Sharapovasaid. "I was calm. I served my way out of it. She got a bit tight and nervous but I was just steady. I made her hit another ball and it slipped away from her."
Sharapova played conservatively, inviting her opponent to make mistakes, and Ivanovic's 33 unforced errors compared with Sharapova's 15 were crucial. While Ivanovic did not suffer a repeat of the nerves that ruined her previous attempt to win a Grand Slam final, against Justine Henin in Paris last summer, her game grew shaky in the face of Sharapova's consistency, which provedas stifling for the Serb(right) as the heat on a steamy Melbourne afternoon.
The world No 5 did not concede a point on her own serve until the eighth game, denied Ivanovic any break points in the second set, won 89 per cent of points on her first serve and made only three double faults in the entire match. All, bizarrely, came in a single game in the first set, when Ivanovic broke back to level at 4-4, having dropped her serve in the fifth game. Ivanovic's serve held up well enough, but the rest of her game did not, and after she played a poor game to go a break down at4-3 in the second set the end was swift.
At the end, Sharapova ran over to celebrate with her father and then phoned her mother. She also received a congratulatory text from Billie Jean King, who had sent her a message before the match. "She said champions take chances and pressure is a privilege," Sharapova said.
By not dropping a set in the entire tournament Sharapova underlined how well she has come back both from the psychological blow of winning only three games against Serena Williams in the final here 12 months ago and from the shoulder injury that went on to disrupt her campaign in 2007.
The bad news for her rivals is she believes her best is yet to come. "I don't think I'm at [my] peak yet," Sharapova said.