Jun 19th, 2004, 02:03 AM
A week ago I witnessed the most brilliant match by Maria that I've seen so far, as she destroyed Alicia Molik 6-3 6-1 in the quarter-finals of the DFS Classic. She was simply wonderful to watch - so fluent, so in control, clean winners all over the court. And this elevates Maria to fifth position in my all-time favourite list of tennis-players.
I was originally planning to attend Eastbourne instead, but changed my mind when Daniela Hantuchová made a late entry into Birmingham. Just as well, since Maria subsequently pulled out of Eastbourne to get some rest before Wimbledon! I was at Birmingham from Tuesday to Sunday, watching Maria win both the singles title and the doubles title!
"Anything can happen when you come to England. I really want to focus on my tennis and I want to continue getting better."
Tournament-director Marjory Howie: "Maria is an extremely popular player and we are delighted that she is returning to wow the crowds."
Maria's trailblazing DFS Classic began on Monday 7th June, when she and Maria Kirilenko - playing on a wild card - stunned second seeds Ting Li and Tian Tian Sun 6-4 6-0!
What a combination - both called Maria, both Russian, both 17 (Kirilenko was born three months earlier in January 1987), both blonde and very good looking, and both capable of brilliant tennis!
On Tuesday I saw Maria in the flesh for the first time - and what flesh! ;) I was just standing on a path when she came out of nowhere and walked right past me, which made my heart beat faster than at any other time in the week! Maria may look good in photos, but in person she has a certain - how should I put it? - animal magnetisme.
And then I watched Maria beat Jamea Jackson 6-2 6-2 in 67 minutes on Centre Court. She was wearing a white dress with thin shoulder-straps that crossed behind her back, the same dress as Daniela Hantuchová - I hope she washed it before Maria wore it! ;)
Jackson is an athletic baseliner who put up good resistance, and the first set was closer than the scoreline implies as Maria, having just broken for 3-1, struggled through six deuces to hold for 4-1. Maria broke again to take the first set 6-2 with an inside-out forehand winner down the line.
The second set was more routine, although Maria did have a bit of a walkabout at 4-0 up, which became 4-2 before she closed it out 6-2 when Jackson double-faulted.
Maria played very well throughout the match, with flashes of brilliance and some huge serves which made the crowd gasp. Maria's serve seems very similar to that of Venus Williams in both style and speed.
I was sitting behind Maria's father, Yuri Sharapov! He kept shouting to her throughout the match, sometimes in Russian, sometimes in English (e.g. "Rubbish!", "Come on Mash, baby!"). At the end of the match he called to her and she acknowledged him.
"I'm just so happy to be back. It was unbelievable to reach the semi-finals unseeded last year and it's an honour to be the number three seed."
In the third round on Thursday, Maria toiled in extremely hot conditions to overcome Australian qualifier Samantha Stosur 6-4 6-3 in 75 minutes. It was like a furnace out there, the sun so bright that it was stinging my eyes to look at the court. I should have come in sunglasses, like Stosur!
Stosur is a serve-volleyer with a very good serve and a not-so-good volley. Maria broke her to lead 2-1 in the first set after four deuces, a great lob from Maria in the corner, and a running forehand pass-winner down the line. But Maria was swiftly broken back as she served two double faults in the next game.
Games went with serve from 2-2 to 4-4, the highlights including a Stosur service-winner which caused Maria to hit the ball into a gutter full of water behind Stand D in which I was sitting, and Maria squawking like a goose as she hit a crosscourt forehand pass-winner to break for 5-4!
Maria served out the first set 6-4, by which time it was less sunny and now breezy. I appreciated the way Maria takes her time on her passing-shots, waiting for her opponent to commit and then hitting the ball in the other direction.
The second set went with serve until Maria broke for 3-2 after two forehand pass-winners and a rather rude-sounding word from Stosur after she netted a backhand to go down 0/40.
Then it got hot again, and so did Maria's tennis as she broke again for 5-2 with a couple of great forehand returns and a crosscourt backhand winner.
But she seemed to tighten up as she served for the match at 5-2, missing three forehands from 15/15, and with an anxious look on her face when Stosur broke back.
Maria's grunting was noticeably louder as Stosur served to stay in the match at 3-5, especially as she [Maria] belted a crosscourt forehand return-winner at 15/15. Two points later, Maria won the match when Stosur netted a weak sliced backhand.
"I don't think I played unbelievable. I did what I had to do to win the match. I was a bit up and down."
On Thursday evening, I watched the Super Maria Sisters (Sharapova and Kirilenko) beat Tina Krizan and Meilen Tu 6-2 7-6 (7/5) on Centre Court. It was a very entertaining ladies' doubles! :)
The two Marias looked lovely in matching pink-and-white dresses. Maria S is four inches taller than Maria K at six feet, and Maria S seemed to be the dominant partner in their on-court discussions.
The Marias looked well in control at 6-2 4-1 (two breaks), but then Big Maria surprisingly got broken, and Little Maria - who has great returns but a rather vulnerable serve - got broken for 4-4. We were very lucky to pull it out in straight sets after that, particularly as Little Maria had to serve to stay in the set at 6-5.
Looking ahead to her quarter-final with eighth seed Alicia Molik after beating Samantha Stosur, Maria said, "She is another serve-and-volleyer, another Australian, but I've never played her, only practised with her."
That match took place on Friday, and Maria was simply amazing. She played like the ball was coming to her in slow motion, taking her time, waiting to see which direction Molik would anticipate, and hitting winners at will.
I was expecting a tough match for Maria, possibly even a loss, but she played so well that Molik became intimidated, even desperate in the second set.
Molik held her opening service-game, and Maria held to 15 with an off-forehand winner, a crosscourt backhand winner and an ace out wide. She then broke Molik to 15, with three great crosscourt forehands including a pass-winner that clipped the sideline, to lead 2-1.
Maria consolidated the break with an off-forehand winner, two crosscourt forehand winners and an ace down the middle to lead 3-1. Molik held for 2-3, and Maria for 4-2 with two service-winners and two off-forehand winners. It was obvious by now that this was Maria's (and anyone's) best performance of the week.
Molik held for 3-4, and Maria for 5-3 with a forehand volley-winner, an ace out wide and a fabulous forehand winner down the line. With Molik serving to stay in the first set at 3-5, Maria hit a crosscourt forehand winner - she's so adept at punishing short balls - then Molik fell apart and handed the first set to Maria on a double fault after just 20 minutes.
Maria marched out for the second set after just one minute of the set-break, and started with a forehand winner down the line behind Molik, and two service-winners to hold for 1-0.
Then Molik became so intimidated by Maria's error-forcing forehand returns that she conceded her serve with two double faults to give Maria a 2-0 lead. Maria held for 3-0 with an ace down the middle, a well-disguised forehand winner down the line behind Molik, and although Maria was taken to deuce, Molik looked desperate as she netted a backhand dropshot.
Then the wind rose and Molik held to love for 1-3 with an ace and a forehand volley-winner. Maria went 0/30 down on serve after a bad bounce, but recovered by winning four points in a row to hold for 4-1, which I felt was an important game because the momentum of a tennis-match can be so fragile, even when one player is winning so easily.
Maria broke for 5-1, with an off-forehand winner and some errors from Molik, then served it out to love: Molik ballooned a backhand wide, then Maria hit an ace, a service-winner, and a crosscourt forehand winner into Molik's forehand-corner to complete the 6-3 6-1 victory in 53 minutes.
And then she pulled out of Eastbourne: "I would have loved to go to Eastbourne but I never expected to get so far in the French Open and getting past the quarter-finals here means I will have had enough matches."
Maria beat second seed Patty Schnyder - an upset of seedings but not of rankings - 6-1 6-7 (3/7) 6-3 in the semi-finals on Saturday.
Maria was merely a shadow of the player who had torn up Alicia Molik the day before, but she showed great character and fighting qualities to win the third set after an uncharacteristic choking experience in the second.
Maria did not play great tennis, even in the first set which she won 6-1 in windy conditions, against Schnyder who is rather inept on grass and gave away many cheap points with unforced errors.
The only game Schnyder won in the first set was to hold serve in the second game - and only after three deuces. Highlights included Maria running down a dropshot to hit a crosscourt backhand winner to break for 3-1, and a short-angled crosscourt forehand winner in the next game.
In the second set, both players held serve rather easily until 5-5, although Maria had two break-points at 4-4, in a long game in which Maria ran down a dropshot very well to hit a backhand winner, and hit an inch-perfect backhand lob-winner.
At 5-5, Maria hit a backhand dropshot-winner crosscourt, opened up the court for a crosscourt backhand winner, and broke to 30 after two errors from Schnyder, with a loud yell of "c'mon!"
Thus Maria served for the match at 6-5, but Schnyder played her best two points of the day: a forehand volley-winner and a forehand winner down the line for 0/30. This seemed to unnerve Maria as she missed two forehands off short balls.
Maria showed further signs of nerves in the tiebreak: anxious grunting, she smacked the court with her racket, played tentatively, and committed two double faults, the second when set-point down at 3/6. Maria took a bathroom-break at the end of the second set.
Maria had the advantage of serving first in the third, thanks to her hold of serve at 5-5 in the second. But she was broken in the opening game as she hit a forehand wide despite opening the court nicely. She changed her racket.
Schnyder played a poor game to hand Maria the break back for 1-1, and then games went with serve so that Maria kept going one game up.
There was a long game of four deuces on Schnyder's serve at 1-2, in which Schnyder fell over and Maria stumbled going for a backhand. Amidst some high-pitched grunting from Maria, Schnyder held for 2-2.
There was an even longer game on Schnyder's serve at 2-3, during which a forehand from Maria bounced high over Schnyder's racket for a winner! But Schnyder served her way out of trouble in the end. Maria was holding serve much more easily than Schnyder at this stage.
With an easy forehand winner off a short ball, Maria had Schnyder serving at 3-4 0/30. Schnyder recovered to 30/30, saved one break-point at 30/40, but Maria converted her second with an error-forcing forehand down the line, and emitted a shriek.
Thus Maria served for the match at 5-3. She failed to get the first point on the board as she hit a forehand long. 0/15. Schnyder netted a backhand. 15/15. Maria hit an easy forehand winner off a short lob from Schnyder. 30/15. Service-winner. 40/15 (match-point). Schnyder long. Maria pumped her fists and shouted "C'MON" three times.
"It was very difficult so I am lucky to be in the final. I should have pulled it out in the second set, so I was lucky to get through in the third. I fought hard out there so I guess it paid off."
On Saturday evening, the Super Maria Sisters played their doubles semi-final against Emmanuelle Gagliardi and Roberta Vinci. I was hoping for a quick match to preserve Maria's energy for Sunday's singles final, but it turned into a six-set day as the Marias won 6-4 4-6 6-2.
Maria S looked tired and unfocused at times in the doubles semi, shouting after she made errors, but she showed flashes of brilliance too, such as a blazing forehand return-winner at 3-4 in the first, a lovely angled crosscourt forehand winner at 0-2 in the second, and a couple of amazing lobs at 2-4 in the second and 3-2 in the third (Maria Kirilenko also hit two amazing lobs and some fantastic returns).
The singles final was a mouthwatering match between Maria and Tatiana Golovin, a talented and not-at-all-unattractive 16-year-old. Golovin is an intelligent player with a good command of length, who relies on excellent point-construction, rather than sheer pace, to hit a lot of winners. She also has a good serve. And she has a really cute grunt: somewhere between "ay" and "uy" with a sexy twang reminiscent of Gwen Stefani or Pink.
It was the third-youngest WTA final of the Open Era; the youngest was Monica Seles (17) v Jennifer Capriati (15) at San Diego 1991, and the second-youngest was Andrea Jaeger (15) v Tracy Austin (17) at Tampa 1980.
Maria opened the final by holding serve to love, with an inside-out forehand winner down the line on the second point. Golovin made it 1-1 with an ace and three service-winners (Maria hit a crosscourt backhand winner).
Maria double-faulted and made three errors to get broken to 15. Golovin held for 3-1, by which time it was clear that Maria was hitting harder but more erratically than Golovin, who was more solid and was playing some good spreading rallies.
Maria held for 2-3 with a down-the-line forehand winner off a short return, and an ace down the middle. Both girls were peppering the lines. Golovin held for 4-2.
Maria survived a service-game of two double faults, three deuces and three break-points, as Golovin was moving her from side to side to force errors and occasionally open up the court for a winner. Maria finally held for 3-4 with a forehand winner down the line followed by an ace down the middle.
Golovin held for 5-3 with three service-winners, forcing Maria to serve to stay in the set. Maria went 0/30 down, but recovered impressively with a crosscourt forehand winner, a down-the-line forehand winner that clipped the sideline, and a couple of service-winners.
Golovin, serving for the first set at 5-4, went up 30/0, made two errors for 30/30, hit an inside-out forehand winner down the line after a dominating rally, and Maria netted a forehand to lose the first set 6-4 after 36 minutes.
Maria turned the match around by serving better, and converting some of her unforced errors to winners. She opened the second set with an ace down the middle and a fantastic short-angled error-forcing crosscourt forehand as she held to 15. Golovin held for 1-1 with an ace out wide, and Maria held for 2-1 with three aces!
Maria wasted one break-point at 1-2 30/40 by netting a forehand off a short ball with the court open, but did break for 3-1 with a brilliant crosscourt backhand pass-winner, and held for 4-1.
Golovin held for 2-4, and Maria for 5-2 after a high forehand volley-winner and three service-winners, the second of which caused Golovin to mishit her return into the gutter behind Stand D where I was sitting!
Golovin seemed to be going for her shots more in the second set, with more winners but also more errors than she made in the first set. Serving to stay in the second at 2-5, she hit a forehand wide, and off-forehand winner, a backhand just long, netted a backhand dropshot to give Maria two set-points at 15/40, and Maria hit an error-forcing forehand to win the second set 6-2 in 26 minutes.
Maria was broken to 30 in the first game of the third set after a double fault and three forehand errors. But then she won six games in a row, starting with a titanic struggle to break back in the second game.
Maria hit a forehand winner and a backhand winner, both crosscourt, for 0/30, then Golovin made a forehand pass-winner down the line off a forehand smash from Maria! 15/30. Maria netted a forehand after an intense rally. 30/30. Golovin hit a forehand lob long, forced by the depth of Maria's shot. 30/40 (break-point). Maria forehand return long. 40/40. Maria forehand return-winner down the line. Ad Maria (break-point #2). Maria backhand wide. Deuce #2. Double fault (after 2 lets). Ad Maria (break-point #3). Maria netted a backhand. Deuce #3. Maria hit a backhand winner down the line after a fabulous spreading rally that had Golovin scrambling all over the court. Advantage Maria (break-point #4). Golovin forehand long. 1-1.
Maria held for 2-1 with an off-forehand winner, a couple of service-winners and a crosscourt forehand winner. She broke for 3-1 after a down-the-line forehand winner off a poor dropshot from Golovin, and three Golovin forehand errors.
Golovin then took a seven-minute injury time-out off-court (which is only allowed for embarrassing problems), which turned out to be for a pain in her lower back. Maria passed the time by hitting practice-serves and groundstroke-swings - she didn't do an Iva Majoli and knock up with a ballboy!
The crowd sensed that Golovin's injury-break was tactical - intended to break Maria's momentum after Maria breaking for 3-1 - but if it was, it certainly backfired on Golovin as she lost all her own momentum. Maria held for 4-1 with an ace out wide an a crosscourt backhand winner behind Golovin, who did some stretching exercises on a towel during the changeover.
Golovin, serving at 1-4, hit a forehand winner down the line which clipped the baseline, but Maria responded with a crosscourt forehand winner for 15/15. Maria earned a break-point at 30/40 with some error-forcing play, but Golovin saved it with a forehand winner down the line. Golovin saved Maria's second break-point with an ace out wide, but after the third deuce, Golovin missed a backhand and a forehand to leave Maria serving for the title at 5-1.
Maria hit a service-winner. 15/0. Maria forehand pass wide. 15/15. Maria service-winner down the middle. 30/15. Golovin backhand wide. 40/15 (match-point). Maria sealed her third career WTA singles title (all Tier III) in style with an ace down the middle. Maria won 4-6 6-2 6-1 in an hour and 45 minutes.
The presentation-ceremony followed, at which both players made speeches. Golovin said Maria was too good, but she looks forward to revenge.
Maria said she was happy and thrilled, that Birmingham was on her schedule for sure. She thanked the club, the sponsor DFS ("not too many sponsors in women's tennis"), "Mauricio", "Mark", Dad, and the physios. "We'll play for many more years," she said, laughing.
Quotes from their post-match press-conferences:
Maria: "In the first set she did everything right, she was just too good. I was just lucky she couldn't do it the whole match. I just hung in there and played my game, and in the end that was good enough."
This means that Maria knows she has to add more variety to her game.
"I love playing on grass, and to win my first ever grasscourt title here is a huge thing for me. This tournament holds so many memories, so it feels so good.
"This is the best possible preparation for Wimbledon, the best you can get. I've had some tough wins here, and winning a title always gives you the confidence to think that you can win more. I always believe I can win the title when I enter an event.
"I've got to look ahead now and prepare for Wimbledon with this tournament in my pocket. It was only a practice tournament but winning it is fantastic. Judging from the way that I have been playing this past week, I feel very confident. I'm comfortable on grass and I've got plenty of matches in.
"Match-play is not the key right now, it's rest and practice. I will work on a few things that I felt weren't working well and try to improve those. So far I'm feeling very good."
Of Golovin's injury-break, Maria said: "I've been in those kind of situations before and I kept my cool. I played with her in the juniors and we've had those kind of things before. I knew in the back of my mind that, if I'm up, she can do that. But she was still running like a rabbit out there."
Golovin: "I had a great week here. I'm so thrilled at how I played all week long, and the welcome I received in Birmingham. Maria was just too good today, but I'm sure I'll get revenge next time.
"I started so well. It was almost a perfect first set. But then she started to play better and I had more trouble holding my serve. She was more aggressive than I was in the second and third sets."
Golovin did not make her lower-back pain an excuse for her loss. "It hurts more now. I lost because Maria played better than me. She's a great player, ranked 15th in the world, and so this is a great achievement for me. She was more aggressive than I was, and that's how you win matches."
Maria was allowed an hour's rest after the presentation-ceremony before the doubles final. Curiously, she disappeared during the warm-up! But she ran back onto court just in time to serve in the opening game, and she and Maria Kirilenko wrapped up a simple 6-2 6-1 victory in 66 minutes over Lisa McShea and Milagros Sequera.
The Super Maria Sisters went 3-0 up in the first set before Sequera held serve. Highlights included a short-angled dipping crosscourt backhand pass-winner at 1-0 from Maria S, a fantastic forehand winner down the line at 4-1 from Maria K, and a rat-a-tat net-rally which ended with Maria S hitting Sequera with a forehand-volley, followed by a big smile.
In the second set, the Marias broke for 3-1 after seven deuces on Sequera's serve. This game included Maria S hitting a crosscourt backhand winner of amazing angle onto the sideline after a tremendous forehand `get' from Sequera, and a fantastic forehand winner by Maria K when she was driven low and wide.
By the time McShea was serving at 2-6 1-4, the match was being played in a lighthearted spirit. McShea shouted "I'll try!" after a lob-winner from Maria K, and there was one great rally of lobs, smashes and calling which McShea won with an error-forcing forehand volley. Maria hit a backhand lob-winner on the baseline to break, and jumped for joy.
Thus Maria K had the honour of serving for the doubles title at 5-1. Maria S netted an easy backhand. 0/15. Maria K forced an error with a dipping forehand pass. 15/15. Sequera hit a forehand passing-shot which clipped Big Maria's racket. 15/30. McShea hit a backhand dropshot-winner - a backhand airshot by Maria S. 15/40 (two break-points). Big Maria hit a forehand smash-winner. 30/40. Little Maria knocked McShea over with an error-forcing forehand smash! 40/40. Sequera forehand volley long. Advantage Kirilenko (match-point). The other team netted to give us victory.
Maria S: "Today just gets better. It makes the perfect end to an unbelievable week for me. Playing doubles helps my game.
"I don't think my game is 100% perfect at the moment. There are a lot of things I can learn. I'm not going to play doubles all year long, but I use doubles as a kind of practice for new things and try them out."
A full blow-by-blow report of this tournament will appear on my website at a later date, and I'll also let you know when I upload the photos I took (not planning to until after Wimbledon).
Good luck Maria for Wimbledon!
Dr. Andrew Broad