Sharapova triumphs with show of mental strength

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The Independent Online

Richard Williams once said that Martina Hingis's legs were too short for the Swiss 1997 Wimbledon champion to be able to stop his daughters, Venus and Serena, striding past her to the summit of women's tennis. Williams cannot say the same about the tall, limber Maria Sharapova, who ended his family's four-year reign on Centre Court on Saturday by overwhelming Serena in a stunning final, 6-1, 6-4.

Richard Williams once said that Martina Hingis's legs were too short for the Swiss 1997 Wimbledon champion to be able to stop his daughters, Venus and Serena, striding past her to the summit of women's tennis. Williams cannot say the same about the tall, limber Maria Sharapova, who ended his family's four-year reign on Centre Court on Saturday by overwhelming Serena in a stunning final, 6-1, 6-4.

Sharapova was the silver lining in the Wimbledon clouds. The Russian's triumph not only lifted the tournament from fits of depression but also salvaged the season for the injury-ravaged women's tour, which had limped along without the services of major players, such as the two leading Belgians, Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters.

Before we become consumed by the Sharapova story, the display of grace in defeat by the 22-year-old Williams and her father must be mentioned. Having netted a forehand return on the second match point after 73 minutes, Serena walked round to her opponent's side of the court and embraced her. Simultaneously, Richard Williams put a congratulatory arm round the shoulders of Yuri Sharapov, father of the day, in the players' guest box.

Serena did not sulk. Though bitterly disappointed to lose a family heirloom, she was as strong in defeat as she usually is in victory, trailing in the wake of Sharapova's parade and waving to the crowd. In some way, this was the Williams family's finest moment.

The exuberant Sharapova is the third youngest Wimbledon women's singles champion after Lottie Dodd, 15, and Hingis, 16 - although, as an indignant Hingis said after examining the 1887 draw sheet showing that Dodd only had to win three matches: "Well, that doesn't count." Sharapova, the world No 15, is the lowest-ranked player to win the title. Her status will be elevated to No 8 today.

Although the top-seeded Williams was the favourite to complete a hat-trick of titles, given her strength and experience, there were signs in the semi-finals that the balance of power was about to shift.

Williams did not look particularly sharp in her three-sets win against Amélie Mauresmo, who was unable to capitalise after taking the opening set. Sharapova also lost the opening set against Lindsay Davenport, the champion in 1999. The way Sharapova fought back and out-played Davenport prompted some observers to reconsider the likely outcome of the final.

On the day, Sharapova had a sore throat, but her mind was crystal clear. Blocking out distractions - handed a bouquet to bring on court as she was about to visit the bathroom, she nipped off, slightly delaying the start - Sharapova soon gained confidence after finding that Williams' returns and ground-strokes were erratic.

Serving with pace and accuracy, and hitting fierce, deep shots to the corners of the court, Sharapova added to the uncertainty in Williams' game. The American was betraying a nervous hesitation while preparing to deliver second serves. Sharapova's supporters in the crowd, sensing the disquiet, shouted Russian words of encouragement like self-appointed auxiliary coaches. Sharapova romped through the first set, breaking for 3-1 and 5-1 before saving three break points when serving out the set after 30 minutes.

The volume of the squeals, screams and grunts on both sides increased in the second set, until Sharapova's emphatic striking of the ball was accompanied by a flatter, prolonged exhalation of "huuummm" as her Doodlebugs homed on target.

Sharapova said she did not remember much about the match because she was locked in her "own little world", commonly known among players as "the zone" of ultimate concentration. When Monica Seles was at her grunting best, Nathalie Tauziat and Martina Navratilova both complained about the noise she made. Nowadays noises-on are commonplace.

"People are so picky and stuff," Williams said. "If that's what she does, let her do it. Let her grunt. I grunt loud. I pump my fist. You can't let it bother you. It doesn't bother me at all." What did bother Williams was the damage Sharapova caused when the sound stopped.

For most neutrals, the atmosphere after Williams broke for 4-2 in the second set became one of nervous anticipation, fearing to react full-lunged lest Williams should respond in lioness mode and shatter the teenager's dream.

We had arrived at the crux, the moment when Sharapova would be put to the test and would have to prove that she was ready to become a major champion. She rose to the challenge, recovering a break by forcing Williams to make error after error.

If that game defined Sharapova's Wimbledon, the one with Williams serving at 4-4 produced the most exciting tennis on both sides of the net, a festival of hard-driving rallies laced with breathtaking variation as Williams fought to hang on to the title and Sharapova strove to wrest it away.

Sharapova conjured the second of two perfect lobs - the first had helped her to hold to 15 in the eighth game - and one spectacular rally, on the 10th point, brought spectators to their feet as Sharapova cracked a winning cross-court forehand. Williams saved three break points and had three game points before losing her footing while moving forward to intercept a return, and she could only flap a forehand wide.

After that we were able to edge a little further back on our seats and watch Sharapova serve out the match, marvelling at the composure she had shown throughout the tournament.

Her giggling interview during the presentations added to the charm of the occasion, but seasoned followers of the sport were captivated more by Sharapova's mental strength in the heat of the contest.

John Barrett, the BBC commentator, said Sharapova called to mind two other steely players: Seles ("without the two-handed forehand"), and Maureen "Little Mo" Connolly, from the 1950s, the first woman to accomplish a calendar-year Grand Slam of the four major singles titles.

We must hope that Sharapova is able to build a long and distinguished career on the platform of Saturday's wondrous breakthrough.

She is undoubtedly a refreshing sight to behold. She is also big business. Here's hoping that Saturday was not the last carefree day of her career.

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