The queen of SW19 with the world at her feet

She's the Russian with the looks and the talent and, like Becker, Pele and Rooney before her, she's a superstar at 17

Grunting, grinning, and - at the end - giggling with the unbelievable joy of it all, Maria Sharapova became the new darling of English tennis yesterday. Okay, so she's Russian - the first from her country ever to win at Wimbledon - but who cared?

Grunting, grinning, and - at the end - giggling with the unbelievable joy of it all, Maria Sharapova became the new darling of English tennis yesterday. Okay, so she's Russian - the first from her country ever to win at Wimbledon - but who cared?

On Centre Court and in living rooms across the nation people were cheering past the lumps in their throats for a 17-year-old whose father had waited at tables and worked all hours to save up and send her from Siberia to tennis school in the United States at the age of eight.

When Sharapova played the shot that beat Serena Williams 6-1 6-4 after more than an hour of iron-willed, self-controlled tennis she fell to her knees, dropped her racket and covered her weeping eyes. Then she climbed into the stand - after checking with an astonished security guard that it would be OK - and found her father, who had sacrificed time, money and more to an obsessional degree in pursuit of a moment such as this.

Yuri Sharapov clambered towards her and held his daughter's face as tightly as he must have done when he had to leave her alone in America, aged nine, at the academy run by Nick Bollettieri. Now he kissed it again and again as if unable to believe she had just won her first Grand Slam event. It won't be the last, judging by the steely approach and sometimes fantastical tennis she played to beat Williams, who, with her sister Venus, has monopolised the Wimbledon ladies' title for the past four years.

On paper it had looked like a one-way tie: a 23-year-old six times Grand Slam winner, going for her third Wimbledon title in succession, against a 17-year-old. You feared for Sharapova against Serena Williams, one of the most powerful hitters in the women's game.

That fear became acute after an extended delay in the locker-room before going out on court. And when Sharapova rushed off after the warm-up, there was concern that the anxiety had made her too ill to start. Happily it seemed to have been little more than a bathroom break. Sharapova seemed okay, if unsmiling, eyes a little expressionless, conveying no sense of revelling in the occasion. And pretty soon what had looked like fear revealed itself to be an almost spookily intense focus on the match ahead.

That she won the toss and chose to serve should have told us there was no fear - she was going to take charge of the game from the outset. The next 30 minutes were as astonishing a piece of drama as has been seen on Centre Court, as Sharapova attacked the few weak spots in the reigning champion's game. She served well, pitching inside the swing of Williams's return, or aiming at the body. In open play, Sharapova targeted the Williams forehand - and when she broke the title-holder in the fourth game, the first tiny sign of celebration was allowed with a clench of the fist. Then the mask of intense concentration came down again.

Serena fought back, increasing the violence of some of her shots, but to no avail. Sharapova's coaching team had seen Amélie Mauresmo puncture Williams's right wing in the semi-final, and now Sharapova killed off the set at 6-1. There was an eerie atmosphere around the court, part celebratory, part astonished. But Sharapova sat beneath the umpire's chair as though settling down for a quiet night in with the telly, so emotionally enclosed had she become.

Inevitably the champion roused herself in the second set, jigging up and down on her toes like a boxer trying to order the mind after a knockdown.

She clawed her way into a break of serve in the sixth game. Sharapova immediately broke back then levelled. She lobbed perfectly, drove one backhand like a shell past Williams, and drove another into her feet. It must have seemed as if she were battling a pitiless cyber-babe (or Siber-babe) in a computer game. Sharapova just wouldn't break. Instead she powered and connived her way through to serve for the championship at 5-4.

She lost the first point, but ground on to achieve two championship points. The first was blown with an over-extravagant forehand, but Williams could not save the next. Finally, the new champion collapsed in a tearful heap as she let go of the forces that had held her so upright and taut. She was a little girl again, the one who left Siberia for Florida 10 years ago. But the same one who had swept an established champion away as though her opponent were the nervous novice.

Williams was gracious in defeat, praising the young champion beside her, face illuminated by light reflecting on the trophy as she examined the illustrious names on it. Do you believe what is happening to you, Sharapova was asked. "No," was the typically forthright reply, this time with a giggle. She had just been trying to call her mother in Florida on a mobile phone, in front of the crowd and the press and the world. The phone failed her, so she thanked mum by camera, tearful.

There were also thanks for a mystery individual who had "inspired me to win Wimbledon" but she wouldn't say who that was. "Look at her," said Tracy Austin, a former teenage champion. "Seventeen years old but totally in control of the microphone. Totally in control of the court."

Sharapova had been called the Queen of Scream for her glass-shattering grunts during matches, but yesterday she couldn't stop smiling and laughing. She's just 17, the age at which Boris Becker won Wimbledon (and Pele lit up world football, and Wayne Rooney burst into the England team . . . what is it about sweet 17?). Whatever happens now, after all the sacrifices made by mum and dad and the little girl they left alone in a strange country, in the hothouse atmosphere of a sporting academy, she will make a fortune.

Sharapova has the looks of Anna Kournikova, and a modelling contract similar to the one her fellow Russian signed when she first made a dazzling impression at tennis tournaments - but unlike her compatriot, Sharapova's main overpowering skill is in winning matches. Which also gives her advantage over Tim Henman in capturing hearts, whatever their nationality. After the presentation and the speeches she blew kisses to every corner of the crowd and left. We will see her again. Often.

How grunters can gain the advantage

Maria Sharapova, who was on classically noisy form yesterday, already holds the unofficial world record for on-court grunting, with earlier performances peaking at 94 decibels.

Exercise physiologists argue that while there is no physical advantage to be gained from deliberately grunting during a match, there is a natural tendency to emit a noise after a particularly forceful shot. Pent-up air is released and the sound that comes out - deliberately or not - sounds like a grunt.

According to tennis coach Jeremy Cross, "grunting is a way of exhaling and when we exhale we relax our muscles". It can also prevent cramp by freeing the diaphragm.

Some, like Dr Matthew Pain, a sports psychologist at Loughborough University, believe that players can gain an advantage by putting opponents off, although others dismiss the idea that world-class players could be so vulnerable.

Tennis coaches do not teach players to grunt. As Sharapova's first coach, Nick Bollettieri, writes in The Independent: "To dispel a myth, we never instruct anyone to grunt or yell when they hit the ball."

In fact it appears to be against the rules. While the official rules of tennis do not ban grunting, the unofficial code stresses that players should "avoid grunting and making other loud noises".

Steve Bloomfield

SPORTING TEENS WHO HAVE GOT IT ALL

Wayne Rooney (18)

Everton's wunderkind captured Beckham's crown as the hottest player in Britain after his crowd-pleasing performance at Euro 2004. He scored four goals for England in Portugal and, despite being ribbed for his extraordinary looks, he is nevertheless expected to make millions from many lucrative sponsorship deals.

Michelle Wie (14)

Hawaiian-born golfer who began playing at the age of four and has been dubbed the female Tiger Woods. She was the youngest competitor to be selected to play in the Curtis cup. Wie's abilities on the golf course are expected to raise the profile of the women's game.

Tatiana Golovin (16)

Russian-born French sensation who now lives in Florida. She won the mixed doubles at the French Open with partner Richard Gasquet last month, but was beaten in the fourth round of the women's singles at Wimbledon last week by Serena Williams.

Amir Khan (17)

Britain's only boxer at this summer's Olympics. The teenager from Bolton has been likened by some to the young Muhammad Ali. By the time he was 11, Amir was fighting competitively and is now so good he cannot be matched with any domestic rivals.

Whitney Ping (17)

At the age of 10, Whitney Ping was good enough to beat her father Ken, a Cambodian refugee. Now 17, she will represent the USA at the Olympics in Athens. She says: "Ping-pong is kind of the thing that you play. Table tennis is the thing that I play. You're kind of the game, and I'm kind of the sport."

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