Sharapova's finally found the strength to challenge supremacy of Williams

 

Few players can match Maria Sharapova's determination and dedication, but the Russian faces the ultimate test today as she attempts to win one of the few prizes to have eluded her. Sharapova has lost in the Miami final four times and her opponent this afternoon has won their last 10 meetings.

Although Serena Williams last won the title in 2008, the world No 1 has an outstanding record at the tournament, with five victories in her seven appearances in the final.

Sharapova, nevertheless, could not be in better form as she prepares for the meeting of the world's top two players, having extended her unbeaten run to 11 matches with her 6-2, 6-1 semi-final victory over Jelena Jankovic. Williams, meanwhile, needed just 65 minutes to crush Agnieszka Radwanska 6-0, 6-3.

As Sharapova made her long recovery from shoulder surgery in 2008 there were fears that she might never recapture her former glories, but the Russian completed her set of Grand Slam titles by winning last year's French Open. Now she is attempting to become only the third woman, after Steffi Graf and Kim Clijsters, to win the Indian Wells and Miami titles back-to-back.

"Winning a title on its own, whether it's here or Indian Wells, is a great achievement," Sharapova said. "To be able to come back from that and recover in just a few days and come back to the final here, it's great. Physically, many years ago I wouldn't have been able to do that, so I'm very proud of the way I have recovered."

Sharapova spent much of her childhood in Florida training at Nick Bollettieri's academy. "It would mean so much to me," she said as she dared to contemplate winning the Miami title. "I love this city. It's the first city I landed in when I came to the United States as a little girl."

Meanwhile Williams, who lives less than two hours' drive away at Palm Beach Gardens, regards Miami as her home tournament. "I'm excited because I'm in the final again," she said. "So many of my friends are here. My family is here. I have to do well here. I can't let my friends down."

Sharapova has lost in the Miami final to four different players: Clijsters in 2005, Svetlana Kuznetsova in 2006, Victoria Azarenka in 2011 and Radwanska last year – and her record against Williams is not a cause for optimism. She beat the American twice in 2004 but has not done so since and has lost the last 13 sets they have played.

"They have been pretty quick matches," Sharapova said. "She's a tremendous athlete, has so much power, and a confident player as well. So if you have a few games where you're not stepping in and not playing the way you should be, she takes really good advantage of it."

Williams expects a tough match but admitted: "I love playing her because she just brings out a good game. I just like the challenge of playing someone who has made history and who is doing so well."

The men's final will be played tomorrow. In last night's semi-finals Andy Murray was facing Richard Gasquet while David Ferrer was taking on Tommy Haas.

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