They think it's all Sharapova ...it is now
From Russia with blonde ambition, the new court princess sweeps queen Serena aside
Sunday 04 July 2004
Wimbledon's Centre Court, that cockpit of history and drama, has never seen a more dramatic women's final than yesterday's stunning victory of Maria Sharapova, the long-tressed 17-year-old blonde from Moscow, via Siberia and Florida. Sharapova, a 7-2 long-shot against the odds-on defending champion, Serena Williams, deservedly triumphed in straight sets, 6-1 6-4, trouncing a woman who was bidding for a hat-trick of titles.
As Serena slammed the last of a stream of forehand errors into the net after one hour and 13 minutes, Sharapova fell to her knees in disbelief on the baseline, head in hands. Then, still kneeling, awareness of the need to showboat a little surfaced. She thrust both arms rigidly aloft and then opened her eyes to find the dethroned champion sportingly walking round the net to embrace and congratulate her.
The new queen of Wimbledon then walloped a ball she had been carrying inside her skirt high into the crowd in the bright sunshine and climbed through the spectators, up towards the players' box where her father and coach, Yuri, doffed his cap almost in deference before hugging Maria for a full minute.
Borrowing a mobile phone from dad, Sharapova then returned to court, blowing kisses in the manner of Andre Agassi, and attempted to call her mother at their home in Bradenton, Florida, while the Duke of Kent stood patiently waiting to hand her the Venus Rosewater Dish and a cheque for £560,500.
The new sensation of women's tennis now moves into the world's top 10, and she may soon be enjoying the view from the very summit of the rankings at this rate. From the summit of the world's earners, too, for this teenager is Anna Kournikova with ability and the killer touch as well.
Offered her chance to seize the moment against an opponent who remains short of form after eight months out following a knee operation in August last year, Sharapova grabbed it with both hands. If the two-time champion and winner of six Grand Slams got knocked aside in the process, too bad. This was the moment the Russian had dreamed about, winning her favourite tournament.
Mercifully, the match was free of interruptions. The wretched weather of the past 12 days might never have been as the finalists, both clad entirely in white, went at it ferociously. If Maria was nervous, it didn't show. She struck the ball flat, deep and accurately, running Serena from side to side.
From the very first game the Williams reputation looked under threat. Not only were the Russian's groundstrokes deadly, Serena's hitting was suspect, particularly on the forehand, which betrayed her time and again. Her range-finder, never the best in the women's game, was seriously out of kilter. Usually Serena's power overrides the errors, but she never succeeded in getting off the back foot, particularly after Sharapova broke serve to go 3-1 ahead. Three of the points which earned that break will go down as Williams errors, but in truth she resembled someone in the trenches under violent bombardment, grunting in despair as another projectile homed in on her.
Exultant and confident, Sharapova strode around imperiously, frequently taking time between points to compose herself at the back of the court, and keeping Serena waiting in the process, a wait which was to undermine Serena's usually iron-clad attitude. As errant Williams forehands continued, Sharapova broke again to go 5-1 up. She needed four break- points to achieve it. The first three seeped away on a brace of Sharapova errors, followed by a rare piece of serve-volley brilliance from Serena. On the fourth chance, Serena's nerve-ends were exposed. The first serve was a fault and the second, trundling over the net at 81 miles an hour, was murdered by the ruthless Russian.
Serving for the set tested Maria's resolve, too. There were the first indications of waywardness and uncertainty as the Williams counter-attack gathered pace, garnering two break-points. Sharapova clawed both back, one on the luckiest of net cords. There was a third break-back opportunity for Serena, but that dodgy forehand betrayed her yet again, dumping a service return into the netting.
This was the key game of the match. Three times Sharapova got to set point, each time she faltered, twice on errors - one a double-fault - and once when the American struck a glorious cross-court backhand. But when a fourth set point came along, Williams obliged by netting a forehand. It was greeted by a mighty roar for a set which, seemingly hours long, had in fact lasted just 30 minutes. Sharapova had won five games in a row.
Now she needed to protect and extend that lead. Williams had a break point in the second game of the second set. It was survived. At 3-2, Williams again reached break point on an outrageous fluke, a mis-hit caused by a broken string which dropped in.
This time the break was grabbed by the champion to go 4-2 ahead, at which point Sharapova promptly broke back, and the sequence of the opening set was about to be repeated. To mounting roars, Maria drew level at 4-4 and then broke Serena again. She was confident enough to lob her opponent several times and to hammer one shot directly at Serena's face as she closed in on the net.
The break was landed at the fourth attempt, Sharapova was 5-4 and serving for the match. Would she wilt? Would she heck. There was an ace, only her second, followed by a thunderous service winner. A Williams forehand error took her to match point as Serena swiped the turf with her racket. Another botched forehand and it was over.
Sharapova, at 17 years 75 days, becomes the third youngest Wimbledon women's champion, after Lottie Dod in 1887 and Martina Hingis in 1997. Incredibly, from the first rally, she had never looked as if there would be any other result. That's why the lady is a champ.
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