Sharapova, the sensation from Siberia, dazzles Centre Court

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The Independent Online

Maria Sharapova is in vogue, and just about every other magazine is queuing for photographs. The tall, blonde 17-year-old from Siberia, via Florida, advanced to her first Grand Slam final here yesterday, and her victory probably marked the end of Lindsay Davenport's journeys to Wimbledon.

After her semi-final defeat by Sharapova, 2-6, 7-6, 6-1, the 28-year-old Californian said that she would "be surprised to be back". Davenport brought the Steffi Graf era to a close when she defeated the seven-times champion in the 1999 final.

That was followed by four years of domination by Venus and Serena Williams, which will be extended to five if Serena, the younger of the American sisters, completes a hat-trick of titles by overpowering Sharapova tomorrow.

We must hope that the excitement generated by both semi-finals yesterday, when the women's tournament suddenly came to life, is repeated in the final.

Williams, the top seed, was severely tested by the fourth-seeded Amélie Mauresmo, of France, who has been unable to produce her best form in major championships in the past, particularly when playing on the clay courts at her domestic Grand Slam at Roland Garros, in Paris.

Showing few signs of the nerves that so often cramp her style, and battling on in spite of having to call the trainer to treat strains to her right thigh and lower back, Mauresmo did not fade until the concluding game as Williams prevailed, 6-7, 7-5, 6-4.

Williams, who has now won seven of her eight matches against Mauresmo, was not allowed to impose her immense power on yesterday's contest. Mauresmo, trading blow for blow, recovered after losing her serve in the opening game of the match and broke back for 5-5. Williams, taken aback, worked her way to a tie-break, in which her confidence was further dented.

After taking a 3-1 lead, Williams was hauled back to 3-3. Mauresmo continued to press, and won the shoot-out, 7-4, when Williams hit a backhand long. Many observers were convinced an upset was in the making after Mauresmo broke for 2-1 in the second set. Williams responded by breaking back for 3-3 and then holding for 4-3, at which point her opponent left the court for treatment.

When play resumed and Mauresmo was broken for 5-3, many of us wondered if the Frenchwoman's challenge was about to end limply, and were ashamed for thinking such negative thoughts when she broke back in the next game before calling for further treatment.

The next two games went with serve, and another tie-break seemed to be looming. It was then that Mauresmo lapsed, double-faulting on set point at 5-6, 30-40. For Williams, this was more than a reprieve. It was a confirmation that her opponent was vulnerable.

Mauresmo gathered herself for the deciding set and helped keep the crowd enthralled by the mighty shots that were exchanged and the air of uncertainty. That continued until Mauresmo, serving at 4-5, faced two match points after Williams cracked a backhand return down the line. Williams converted the first, hitting a forehand drive after a Mauresmo second serve and watching her opponent hit a forehand long.

Sharapova was the beneficiary of Davenport's inability to convert either of two opportunities which would have extended the American's lead from 2-0 to 3-0 with a double break in the second set before a 52-minute rain delay transformed the players and changed the course of the match.

"I was reading the OK! magazine," Sharapova revealed afterwards when asked what she did to regroup. "It was quite boring."

When play resumed, with Davenport leading by a set and 2-1, Sharapova was less inhibited about screaming, squealing and growling as she hit the ball and consequently was less inclined to miss her shots. She continued to belt the ball, but with more control. Although Davenport held for 3-1, she sensed that her opponent's confidence was growing. At 3-2, the American double-faulted to 30-40 and lost her serve by missing a forehand down the line in response to Sharapova's forehand cross-court drive. Sharapova was still not off the hook, having to save a break point at 4-5 and another at 5-6 before forcing a tie-break. It was then that the Russian asserted herself. She took a 3-1 lead, recovered after double-faulting on the next point, and created three set points at 6-3. Davenport served away two of them, but Sharapova gleefully converted the third with a backhand drive to win the shoot-out, 7-5.

Thereafter, Davenport was not allowed a moment's respite. Sharapova's persistence enabled her to break in the opening game of the final set, and her deep, accurate groundstrokes were hitting the lines more often than not. She was able to shrug off double-faults on game points at 1-1 and 2-1 before breaking decisively for 4-1.

By now, Davenport was rehearsing her dignified exit. She lost what may have been her last service game at the All England Club, hitting a forehand long. As the ball passed Sharapova, the Russian dropped to her knees, overjoyed and slightly bemused by her success, before rising to acknowledge the cheers of the crowd by blowing kisses.

She is the first Russian to reach a women's singles final at Wimbledon since Olga Morozova lost to Chris Evert, 6-0, 6-4, in 1974, and is in a position to become only the second Russian woman to win a Grand Slam singles title, following Anastasia Myskina's victory against Elena Dementieva at the French Open last month.

"I felt so much emotion at the end of the match," Sharapova said. "Another Russian in a final ­ and it's me. It's a shock. It's amazing. I looked at my dad and looked at my coach, and just said: "I'm playing in the final on Saturday." It was not so amazing considering how Sharapova has adapted so well to grass and has shown such tenacity in tight situations. "One of my strengths is that I fight, I really want to win," she said. "It comes naturally. I've always been a competitor." She will need to prove that all over again tomorrow.

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