Sharapova scrapes home in error-strewn opener

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The Independent Online

Maria Sharapova added "La-la Land", the home of unforced errors, to her list of places to avoid after narrowly averting defeat in the opening round at the US Open here.

Maria Sharapova added "La-la Land", the home of unforced errors, to her list of places to avoid after narrowly averting defeat in the opening round at the US Open here.

The 17-year-old Wimbledon champion admitted that she was "totally out of it at times" in her match against Laura Granville, of Chicago, whose eagerness to trip the new princess of the courts typified the attitude less glamorous players have adopted towards her.

Sharapova, whose 44 mistimed shots emboldened Granville to the point of leading 5-4 on serve in the final set, managed to extricate herself by winning 12 of the concluding 14 points.

Having prevailed, 6-3, 5-7, 7-5, after two hours and nine minutes under the lights on Arthur Ashe Stadium, the Russian seventh seed will now play the 19-year-old Jelena Jankovic from Belgrade, a fellow student at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida.

Sharapova needs to assert herself before she finds the more established players giving her menacing looks from the opposite side of the net.

Justine Henin-Hardenne, the defending champion, Venus Williams and Lindsay Davenport, the in-form player in the women's game, are in Sharapova's half of the draw. And yesterday, Serena Williams and Amélie Mauresmo advanced to the third round in the other half.

When not making mistakes against Granville, a 23-year-old prepared to engage in lengthy, hard-hitting rallies, Sharapova was failing to convert chances. She had three break points at 3-2 in the first set before making a decisive move in the eighth game with a craftily sliced forehand.

Sharapova then suffered the consequences of tame shots that allowed Granville to escape from 40-0 down at 1-1 in the second set, netting a forehand on the second set point at 5-6 after committing a double fault at deuce.

If that were not warning enough, Sharapova allowed her mind to idle after breaking in the opening game of the final set. Double-faults on the first two points of the next game beckoned Granville back into the action, and at 1-1 Sharapova hit a forehand wide to squander yet another break point.

To her credit, Sharapova roused herself and finished emphatically, breaking to love for 6-5 and conceding only one point, albeit her eighth double-fault, in serving out the match.

As a Wimbledon champion with the face of an angel and the body of a model, Sharapova has discovered that few allowances will be made for inexperience and that her results will be scrutinised as closely as her hemline.

Her advisers have sensibly schooled her to adapt Kiplingesque philosophy to the needs of the moment; lines such as "I don't want to make a big tragedy if I don't win". Others are likely to do that for her.

Sharapova is still young enough, however, to be able to embrace expectation as a friend rather than a foe. "I love expectations," she said. "I think that's part of the game, and that's why I play. There's a lot more things than the tennis. There are the pressures, the nerves, a night match on Arthur Ashe Stadium. You don't just go out there and hit ball after ball, you know. You have a brain, and your brain thinks hard."

She also enjoys the big stage: "There's a vibe you get. It's a great feeling to have the people interact with what you're doing, to let you know that this is a big tournament."

Most important, she accepts that her game is incomplete. "Consistency is one of the crucial things," she said. "And also the strength and endurance, the physical part of the game. On the grass, the points are a lot shorter. On the hard courts, obviously, they are going to be very long, and it's a lot tougher on my body as well.

"I'm not so developed yet that I can handle these very long matches," she admitted. "I am getting better, and I know that this is something I have to work on. But these things don't happen over night, so that all of a sudden you wake up and you're Superman."

Mark Philippoussis certainly did not feel like a man of steel yesterday. The Australian's catalogue of misfortunes continued when a hip injury caused the Australian to retire when 4-1 down in the fifth set of his opening match against Nikolay Davydenko, of Russia.

In contrast, Philippoussis' compatriot Lleyton Hewitt, the fourth seed, looked in fine shape as he brought Wayne Ferreira's record 56th consecutive appearance in a Grand Slam to a halt.

Hewitt, the 2001 champion, defeated the 32-year-old South African, 6-1, 7-5, 6-4, after an hour and 42 minutes. "I think Lleyton's got his game back again," Ferreira said.

Gustavo Kuerten has not got his game back, however. The Brazilian former world No 1, three times a French Open champion, lost to the 353rd ranked Kristian Pless, of Germany, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 7-6.