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Old Sep 2nd, 2010, 12:18 AM   #199
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Re: ** Masha News and Articles! ** Vol. 2

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Healthy Maria Sharapova has draw to advance deep in U.S. Open and bring star power to late rounds

FILIP BONDY
Wednesday, September 1st 2010, 4:00 AM

It's not as if the U.S. Open has gate attractions to spare at the moment. There are only about five legitimate stars here, and one of them, Maria Sharapova, threw away the first set Tuesday night as if it were a broken tennis racket.

Sharapova was playing Jarmila Groth, an Aussie by way of Slovakia, who was desperately trying to hand this first-round match to the 14th-seeded Russian as quickly as possible, but failing.

Groth kept whaling away at the ball during rallies, hoping to end them as quickly as possible, with little care whether her groundstrokes or second serves landed inside the lines. It became a match without rhythm or subtlety, because Sharapova plays very nearly the same way, only a bit more sensibly and without nerves.

Points were not so much built as demolished. Eventually Sharapova won this ugly thing, 4-6, 6-3, 6-1, hanging in the tournament for at least another round, and perhaps much longer. Groth finished with remarkably careless stats: 14 double faults and 48 unforced errors.

"She came out firing and didn't give me much opportunities," Sharapova said. "I wasn't returning well, giving her lots of looks on my second serve. She's a one-two punch kind of player. Those are the kind of matches you want to hang in there, and do what it takes."

As usual, Sharapova's grit and poise under pressure were commendable. But she is not yet the same player who captured three different majors from 2004 to 2008, before her shoulder started falling from its hinge and requiring surgery. She's getting there, though.

"Last year, I was just trying to find where my feet were on the ground," Sharapova said. "This year, it feels real good to be healthy, not worrying about physically how you feel."

Some of the changes in Sharapova, the parts off the court, are quite positive. She is no longer daddy's frazzled teenage girl, looking to her player's box in search of stern Yuri Sharapov's instructions between points.

Remember 2006, when Sharapova was ordered to eat a banana and followed that clumsy command during a changeover? On the in-house feed that night, one announcer said during a commercial, not for broadcast, "How dumb do you have to be if somebody has to tell you to eat a banana?"

Here it was her finest hour, a straight-set final victory over Justine Henin, and reporters were asking Sharapova mostly about a banana and her father's coaching. She told them to stop. It was sad and embarrassing for the Russian, who happens to be a sharp, articulate woman.

Yuri was nowhere to be seen Tuesday night, which was a good thing. But there were clues that not everything was yet right, like when Sharapova won the toss and elected to receive rather than trot out her sometimes erratic serve. Her first serve was erratic, her second serve better. Sharapova's baseline game vanished too often.

There are many reasons to admire Sharapova, who never fell back on her looks for anything other than selling a few cameras. This woman worked hard, always fought harder, and quite often overcame her athletic limitations. You don't win Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open without that kind of right stuff.

"You look at the trophies, you have great memories," Sharapova said.

She's still only 23, although it feels as if Sharapova has been here forever. Like many of the top women, she has endured seasons when injuries sabotaged all her good intentions. Given the lack of competition on the women's tour, Sharapova appears poised again for a run at a major, and it might as well be this one.

Her bracket is inviting enough. She's in the weaker top half of the draw, while Venus Williams and Kim Clijsters are in the bottom.

"I don't think there's a perfect scenario," Sharapova said. "I don't think anybody has a perfect Grand Slam. Everybody has ups and downs. The tough part about tennis is you have to come up with the goods when it really matters."

You hope she hangs around, for the sake of the Open. The tournament began with limited star power. Sharapova cuts a fetching figure. If she can clomp her way to the final weekend, it won't matter a bit if the tennis is ugly.
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