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Dream Day: Sharapova Stuns Serena To Win Wimbledon

Photo By Ron Angle By Richard Pagliaro
07/04/2004

Sprinting for yet another biting blast that burst off the face of Maria Sharapova’s racquet, Serena Williams slipped on a slick patch of green grass well wide of the doubles alley and fell flat on her back. Staring up at the sky, Williams couldn’t see Sharapova strike a routine forehand winner into the vast expanse of open court.


The point served to symbolized this Wimbledon final: throughout the entire match Williams ran ragged trying to reclaim the Centre Court real estate she’s ruled like her own backyard, but in the end a superior Sharapova simply shoved her aside to take control of the most precious turf in tennis.

In a stirring performance of power and poise, the 13th-seeded Sharapova completely overpowered and overwhelmed Williams to dethrone the two-time defending champion with a 6-1, 6-4 triumph in the Wimbledon final.

The 17-year-old Sharapova became the second-youngest women to win Wimbledon in the Open Era. Martina Hingis was 16 years old when she defeated Jana Novotna to win Wimbledon in 1997.

The Siberian-born Sharapova, who was the first Russian women to reach the Wimbledon final since Olga Morozova in 1974, continued the Russian revolution that’s altered the power structure women’s tennis. Her Wimbledon victory came one month after Anastasia Myskina defeated Elena Dementieva in an all-Russian Roland Garros final. When the new WTA Tour rankings are released tomorrow, Sharapova will join her compatriots in the top 10.

At this moment, Sharapova stands alone on top of the tennis world as the Wimbledon winner.

When Williams’ final forehand struck the net, Sharapova dropped to her knees near the baseline, buried her face in her hands before thrusting her arms in the air in triumph in an expression of exuberance.

Rising from the court, Sharapova and Williams embraced at the net before the six-foot blonde teenager skipped up the steps of the stands like a school kid returning home for a family reunion and hugged her father, Yuri Sharapov, who, along with Maria’s mother, made an immense personal sacrifice by moving to the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Bradenton, Florida from Russia when his daughter was nine years old to pursue her tennis dreams. When she wasn’t winning matches or signing autographs for her swarm of fans during the fortnight, Sharapova was putting pen to paper to take her school exams. She passed the toughest test of her tennis career today and made a mark that will have her name inscribed on the Wimbledon trophy.

Competing with the confidence of a player who believed she was destined to realize her dream, Sharapova succinctly summed up her upset with the same efficiency she exuded in achieving it.

"I just believed in myself," Sharapova said. "I just kept fighting out there and just kept believing I could win."

Several of Sharapova’s shots left Williams shaking her head in disbelief. Rarely has any woman reduced the former No. 1 to sustained stretches of defensive tennis during a major, but Sharapova gave Williams the runaround for much of the match. Only her driven determination evident in her constantly-churning legs and stretching stabs for shots kept Williams close in the second set.

Bidding to become only the fourth women in the Open Era to capture three consecutive Wimbledon crowns, Williams carried a 20-match Wimbledon win streak, a 31-3 record at the All England Club and the confidence of a woman who had won six of her prior seven Grand Slam finals. But from the moment, Sharapova scored a service break on the strength of searing shots from the baseline to seize a 3-1 lead, it was clear the crown was resting uneasily on the champion’s head.

Whipping her head around to see one of Sharapova’s 17 winners speed by her, Williams was well aware this was a head-turning performance from a teenager playing forceful, ferocious, fearless tennis.

"It wasn’t my day today," Williams said. "Maria played a really great match. She deserved to win today."

Dispatching three straight seeds to advance to the final, Sharapova showed she was capable of claiming this title. The fact that she actually won was surprising enough, the way she won was somewhat shocking.

From the first shot she struck, Sharapova swung with the authoritative audacity of someone picking a street fight with the heavyweight champion. Gently swaying side to side from a low crouch while she waited to return serve, Sharapova attacked Williams’ serve to break in the fourth game then consolidated by banging a serve into the body to hold at 15 for a 4-1 lead. The champion gamely fought off three break points in the sixth game, but wearing a grim mask that covered her face like a veil, Williams realized the severity of her situation. She had cause for concern. Approaching a Williams mis-hit that sat up at midcourt like a piñata, Sharapova stepped into the shot and put all her body weight behind the ball to blast a backhand winner crosscourt and stretch the lead to 5-1.

Serving for the first set, Sharapova suddenly found herself down two break points at 15-40 and for the first time all day she looked tentative and played tight tennis. Sharapova mis-hit a forehand that tripped over the top of the tape and tumbled onto Williams’ side of the net to save the first break point and a Williams’ backhand error got her back to deuce.

Williams stared at her strings as if searching for solutions to Sharapova’s play, but the problems were not easily solved. Beaten in many of the backhand exchanges, Williams sometimes slapped at the ball and mis-hit forehands near the top of her frame and lacked her typical confidence in that shot that strayed long or smacked into net. Sharapova was hitting too hard and deep for Williams to approach the net, so she resigned herself to waging a war from the baseline, but increasingly found herself pushed back beyond the baseline by Sharapova’s shots.

As the tension mounted the seventh game escalated into an eight-minute exchange that saw Sharapova save three break points and Williams fight off three set points. Williams’ forehand failed her again as she netted a forehand return to hand Sharapova a fourth set point and netted the next forehand return as Sharapova pumped her first at taking the first set.

It marked the first time in 35 Wimbledon matches Williams surrendered a set, 6-1.

Sharapova basically beat Williams at her own game by seizing the first-strike opportunity and boldly blasting shots for the corners without hesitation. The 22-year-old Williams was determined to go down fighting and did just that.

Dropping just four points in her first three service games, Williams held for 3-2 then smacked a strong backhand crosscourt that rattled the racquet in Sharapova’s hand and resulted in a service break and a 4-2 lead.

Disgusted at dropping serve for the first — and only time — in the match, Sharapova swiped her racquet in the air and then proceeded to come out swinging. Attacking Williams’ second serve with a vengeance, Sharapova whipped a backhand that Williams barely touched, but could not control, to earn double break point. She broke back with a lethal inside-out backhand return that Williams did well just to get her strings on the ball. Sharapova’s ability to attack Williams’ second serve was critical to her success: she won 12 of the 21 points played on Williams’ second serve, while claiming 15 of the 25 points on her own second serve.

Holding at 15 in the next game, Sharapova evened the set at four-all and pumped her fist with the confidence of a player ready to close.

When Sharapova reviews a tape of this final, the ninth game will be one of many moments well worth a rewind. Williams fought off three break points and slammed a 116 mph service winner down the middle to earn a game point. Punctuating that point screaming "Come on!" in an effort to pump herself up, Williams was one point away from a 5-4 lead and placing the pressure on Sharapova to stay in the set.

She never got it.

In what was the point of the match, Sharapova smacked a sharp, short-angle forehand that forced Williams five feet off the court in pursuit. Incredibly, she ran it down and replied with a forehand, but Sharapova stepped into the court and slammed a forehand winner down the line that a scrambling Williams waved at before it smacked solidly into the back wall for deuce. Williams delivered another 116 mph serve winner down the middle to reach deuce, but when Sharapova lofted an exquisite topspin lob that landed inside the baseline prompting applause from Williams she had another break point. On the 12th shot, Williams netted a backhand volley and fell to her knees after dropping serve, realizing her two-year reign was about to end.

A second serve ace from Sharapova combined with consecutive return errors from Williams gave the Russian double-match point. Two points later, Williams forehand settled into the net and Sharapova dropped to her knees in delight.

Whether this is the rivalry women’s tennis has waited for remains to be seen, but the stirring scene on Centre Court left little doubt Sharapova possesses the powerful presence that will make her a major player on the game’s Grand Slam stage.

Only eight years ago, Sharapova and her father left Russia armed with tennis equipment they received from Yevgeny Kafelnikov and determined to pursue a dream. It was fitting that this shower-stalled fortnight was brightened considerably by Sharapova’s stunning star turn.
 
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