Maria Sharapova is only seven months older than Ana Ivanovic, but Saturday's Australian Open final might have been a contest between a veteran and a novice. Sharapova did not play at her best but did not need to. In her own words, her 7-5, 6-3 win was all about "taking care of business".
Ivanovic, playing in her second Grand Slam final, did not suffer from the nerves that ruined her chances against Justine Henin at Roland Garros last summer, but her game slowly disintegrated under the sheer weight of Sharapova's consistency. The Russian played within herself, forcing Ivanovic to play the extra ball and waiting for the errors that she knew the Serb would make.
If the final itself was a disappointment, the value of Sharapova's third Grand Slam title should not be underestimated. A tricky early match against a former champion, Lindsay Davenport, was followed by encounters with three of the world's top four – Henin, Jelena Jankovic and Ivanovic – yet Sharapova won the tournament without dropping a set. She lost only 32 games, the fewest conceded by a female singles champion here for 20 years.
"You have to raise your game against better players," Sharapova said. "Lindsay knows how to win big matches and I knew in the second round that I had to raise my game. You have to know she's a great player, but you have to do what you have to do. It was the same against Justine. She has all the experience, but the number one thing is not to worry about who you're playing. If I take care of my business, I can beat anyone. I have that confidence.
"This is one of the toughest draws I've had. I'm more pleased that I know realistically it's possible to keep a high level and play amazing tennis through seven matches and to believe in myself. I knew I played Justine at a very high level and that that intensity was bound to drop in the next match. It was important to be conscious of that and to handle it."
Twenty is no age to be making a comeback, but Sharapova said this felt like a second phase of her career, particularly after her long struggles with a shoulder injury last year. Even when she reached the final here 12 months ago she left in tears after being swept away by Serena Williams.
"Success the second time is a lot sweeter," Sharapova said. "I've proved I can come back from having setbacks and negative thoughts and doubts and wondering where my injury was taking me."
The French Open, the only Grand Slam title she has yet to win, is now a major goal. "It's one of the biggest challenges to win it, but that's what drives me," Sharapova said. "I'm getting better and feeling stronger. I'm holding my ground on the clay, my body is developing and I think I have a great chance."