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Old Nov 16th, 2004, 05:06 PM   #55
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Sharapova Wins WTA Tour Championships

LOS ANGELES - Maria Sharapova added another chapter to her short, but already storied career on Monday - overcoming a 4-0 deficit in the decisive set to win the WTA Tour Championships presented by Porsche.

The Russian teen won six consecutive games in a thrilling final set to defeat Serena Williams, 46 62 64. For her efforts, Sharapova collects 1 million dollars as winner of the championships, along with a brand new Porsche Cayenne.

"I don't think I could have asked for anything better this year," Sharapova said. "And to finish it off just beating players that are the best in the world, I am really sort of speechless because I have had an amazing year. I have accomplished so much."

During the on-court ceremony where Sharapova received her million dollar check and a large Porsche key, Sharapova announced she would be donating the vehicle to the victims of September's school hostage tragedy in Beslan, Russia.

The victory also lifts Sharapova to a career-best No.4 in the world - a remarkable rise after finishing last year ranked No.32.

"It just shows that I have come a long way in a short period of time," Sharapova said. "It is just really unbelievable."

The match opened with some tremendous serving performances by both players. Sharapova began the match by holding serve and each player continued the trend until 4-4 when Williams picked up the first break of the match when Sharapova double faulted on break point. Williams then served out the first set for 6-4.

After beginning the second set at 1-1, Williams held a pair of break points on Sharapova's second service attempt of the match, but the Russian was able to use a cross-court forehand to get the game back to deuce.

But Williams used an exception cross-court forehand return to give her another break point opportunity and once again, Sharapova double faulted on break point to hand Williams a 2-1 lead.

However, Williams lead didn't last long as Sharapova got back on serve with her first break of the match on the following service game to keep things even at 2-2.

After holding serve for 3-2, Sharapova records her second straight break on Williams serve for 4-2. She then survived a break point chance on her next serve to extend her lead in the set, 5-2.

Williams then called for the trainer to take a look at an abdominal strain she suffered during the match. After briefly leaving the court, Williams returned but the injury clearly was affecting her service game and Sharapova quickly closed out the set at 6-2.

Before leaving the court to get looked at, Williams' serves were clearly hitting above 100 mph, including a fault that was blasted at 129 mph. But after her return to the court, Williams serves were coming over in the high 70s and lower 80s, which Sharapova was quick to return and win the set.

With the injury limiting Williams' motion on her serve, the American took advantage of her opponent's service game, breaking Sharapova at love to begin the third set. And though the pace came off her serve, Williams was able to use a string of winners to hold serve for 2-0.

After the match, Williams said she felt a pain in her stomach during the first game of the match. As the match progressed - and especially after dropping the second set - Williams said she knew she had to put everything she had left into her shots.

"I just started hitting every ball as hard as I could," Williams said. "And I think I lived off of her mistakes. Once she stopped making them, she was able to come back and win the match. I don't know how I was able to stay out there."

Williams continued to rely on her groundstrokes during Sharapova's next serve - again breaking the teenager for a 3-0 lead. Williams had won 12 of the first 13 points of the third set en route to picking up two breaks of serve.

The American then used a pair of aces to help her grab a fourth straight game to start the decisive set, while Sharapova finally got on the board in the next game, but still trailed 4-1.

"I think she figured that she can't really do anything from her serve," Sharapova said. "So she's got to hit everything as hard as she could. And that is exactly what she did. And there is not too much I could do. She was hitting the ball as hard as she could. And everything was going in."

Sharapova then collected her first break of the final set to move within 4-2 and appeared to be slowly taking the momentum of the match back into her corner, holding serve once more for 4-3.

To Sharapova's advantage, Williams first serves then crept into the lower 70s and three double faults gave the Russian another break to even the set at 4-4. Sharapova followed by holding serve for her fifth straight game in the match, taking a 5-4 lead. Williams was then unable to capitalize on her final service attempt as Sharapova dropped to her knees following the final point of the match.

Sharapova's victory was just the second time in 34 matches this year that a player has defeated Williams after losing the first set. The match was the first time the two players have met since Sharapova's stunning 61 64 victory against Williams in the Wimbledon final.

The 17-year-old finishes the season with a 55-15 record to go along with the five titles she won during the year. In addition to the Championships and her extraordinary run at Wimbledon, Sharapova collected titles at Birmingham, Seoul and Tokyo [Japan Open].

Despite not winning a Grand Slam title during the season for the first time since 2001 and still struggling at times with the knee she had surgically repaired in August of 2003, Williams still finished the year with a 39-9 record and two titles (Miami, Beijing). She will finish 2004 ranked No.7, her lowest ranking since finishing No.20 in 1998.

"I had definitely an up and down year I guess," Williams said. "My Serena year wasn't superb. But I think over all, it has been a really tough year for me in general. So I just try to stay positive."
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