Sharapova the new princess of SW19

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The Independent Online

Euro 2004 has given us teenage sensations in the form of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo; yesterday it was Wimbledon's turn. And, at 17 years and two months, Maria Sharapova is the youngest teenage sensation of the summer.

Euro 2004 has given us teenage sensations in the form of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo; yesterday it was Wimbledon's turn. And, at 17 years and two months, Maria Sharapova is the youngest teenage sensation of the summer.

So young that before yesterday's semi-final, she finished a high-school sociology paper.

Tomorrow, she will also become the youngest women's singles finalist since Martina Hingis in 1997, and the first Russian finalist since Olga Morozova played Chris Evert in 1974. Can she, like Hingis but unlike Morozova, take the title? Nobody who was on Centre Court yesterday will be betting against it.

Even on paper, Sharapova v Lindsay Davenport was an enthralling encounter; on grass it was even better. It pitted youth against experience, the new order against the old guard, Russia against America, a squealer against a non-squealer, even, for those interested in such ephemera as racket details, Prince against Wilson.

The winners were youth, the new order, Russia, squealing and Prince. But Davenport, the 28-year-old former champion, played a full part in the finest women's match of the championships so far (at least until the following semi-final). As, this being Wimbledon 2004, did the rain.

No sooner had the first semi-final started than it was interrupted, with the score standing at 15-all in the first game. The All-England Club's policy is to offer a full ticket refund if there is less than an hour's play, and a half-refund if there is less than two hours. Nobody said anything about more than 30 seconds but less than a minute.

When play resumed, Davenport promptly broke Sharapova's serve and looked comfortably in charge as she completed the first set 6-2.

But they breed them tough in Siberia. Or maybe they raise them tough in Bradenton, Florida. That is where Sharapova is based, and where she has become as typical an American teenager as anyone can be who was a) born in Siberia and b) has an extraordinary talent for playing tennis. She even cites her favourite film as Pearl Harbor, the Stars 'n' Stripes made celluloid.

Even as the youngster lost the first set, there seemed little doubt that we were watching a future champion, if not this year then some year fairly soon. Sharapova hits the ball with formidable power, and fights every lost cause. She has all the shots, most striking of all a forehand drive which she plays on one knee, making her look, with her coltish figure and blonde good looks, like the principal boy in panto at the Wimbledon Theatre; Dick Whittington asking Alderman Fitzwarren for the hand of his daughter Alice.

The middle-aged men who were squashed into the press box find it hard not to refer to Sharapova's looks. But they are relevant, because so much has been made of the beauty of her compatriot Anna Kournikova. Too much, some might say.

Sharapova is no less attractive than Kournikova, but twice, if not 10 times the tennis player. Her burgeoning beauty should not be allowed to eclipse that and nor should the noises she makes on court, although she has quite a repertoire, all the way from the basic squeal to the deluxe model with six gears. Like other graduates of Nick Bollettieri's famous academy, Sharapova has been taught to squeal (a grunt it patently is not) at the moment of impact of ball on racket, not to distract her opponent but to intensify the shot-making effort.

There was another rain interruption early in the second set, but if the first rain break had disturbed Sharapova's concentration, the second she seemed to turn to her advantage. She spent it, incidentally, reading OK! magazine. So much for backstage coaching sessions.

Davenport had broken her serve but she quickly broke back, and as the crowd sensed that she might just nick the second set, the cries of "C'mon, Maria" began to ring out, until finally I wondered whether we might get a rousing version of the nuns' song from The Sound Of Music. Davenport could have played the abbess. "What are we going to do about Maria? How do you take a cloud and pin it down?"

Those sentiments were no less valid here, as Sharapova began to gain the upper hand and clinched the second-set tie-break, 7-5. By the end of the final set, Davenport might have considered this Maria not so much a flibbertigibbet, a will-o'-the-wisp, a clown, as a pain in the backside. She simply had no answer to the teenager's serving and devastating passing shots.

The final score, 2-6, 7-6, 6-1, perfectly reflected the way the match had gone, the new order gradually overcoming the old guard. Davenport said afterwards that this would probably be her last Wimbledon. For Sharapova, who reached the fourth round last year, it is surely the second of many.