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As tough as they come: Sharapova soars past Serena
Maria: 'Now I can concentrate of my goal of being number one'

By Matthew Cronin

Maria Sharapova has never really been afraid of much – not whether she would see her mother again after being yanked away from her homeland at the age of 8 and dropped down in a tennis factory in South Florida, or whether she would fit in with her peers in her new residence of America.

She believed her father, Yuri, who told she had a higher purpose as a tennis player. But on Friday night when she felt a bad cold coming on, she cried, because she was concerned that she might be too congested on Saturday to unleash a full throat full of shrieking strokes.

But the sun arose on London on Saturday, Sharapova could breath freely and she went on court for the Wimbledon final against the most feared woman in tennis and wiped the court with two-time defending champion Serena Williams 6-1, 6-4.

Mentally, Sharapova is far beyond her 17 years. Even when she was babe in tennis woods being trotted out prematurely as "the next cute Russian blonde with potential," it was easy to tell just how naturally smart she was. She took to English like a mid-court sitter, grasping the language within less than a year and now she can sling teenage slang like a Miami mall rat.

Sharapova understands that when you can hit the ball as powerfully and accurately as she can when she's in her zone, that the guile and experience of an opponent doesn't matter. The Siberian-born, inside-the-baseliner is aware that if can keep landing haymakers, it's irrelevant whether your opponent has the ability to come off the floor.

Even when Serena briefly bounced to a 4-2 lead in the second set, Sharapova was waiting with a roundhouse left hook or a sharp overhand right. The glorified Ms. Williams thought she might be able to leap to another three-set victory until Sharapova screamed an inside-out backhand return winner to break back to 3-4. Then the Russian held behind two deep forehands that burnt the parched grass to 4-4. Serena strained to try and hold serve in the next game, but Sharapova was keenly reading her serve on the deuce side and keeping her guessing. On Sharapova's fourth break point, a clearly stressed Serena slipped and pushed a forehand wide.

No one questioned then that Maria "I've never had nerves" Sharapova could serve it out and she crushed another forehand deep that Serena was unable to lift over the net. She collapsed to her knees, raised her arms up, received numerous bear hugs and kisses from her dad, Yuri; her trainer; and agent; and read the inscription on the Wimbledon champion's Rosewater Dish. It must have said something like, "2004: Write your name here if you're a multi-talented Russian who won't choke." That would be Maria with a big "M."

Sharapova didn't allow the six-time Grand Slam champion Serena to claw her way into the match like Williams did in the semifinals against Amelie Mauresmo. It was big serve after big serve, huge return of serve down the line after scorching crosscourt return down the line. It was one in-your-face ground stroke after another. It was a relentless attack from a relentlessly hard worker who's about as self aware as any kid you will meet who never had the benefit of a formal education, or a normal childhood that included spending dozens of Saturdays lip-synching Britney Spears with her friends.

"I know if I work hard, I have the talent for it," Sharapova said at the year's outset. "I'm not going to hide that. I feel if I work hard that it will pay off. I remember the tough times and I worked hard. Look where I've gone from there."

Very, very far.

It's easy to say that Serena didn't play well and point out how vulnerable her forehand was at key moments. But the fact of the matter is that Sharapova simply suffocated her and challenged her to play at 100 percent of her abilities the entire match. At her best, Serena is capable of doing so, but she hasn't consistently displayed her A-plus game in a year's time. Pay no attention to Serena's post-match comment that she played only "20 percent" of her ability. She was at about 80 percent but needs to be at the very pinnacle of her game to take down an in-form Sharapova.

As the hissing and shrieking, Sharapova says she knows how to "snake" her way into points. Not like some sneaky garden snake variety, but like a king cobra, looming tall with its back arched, flashing its fathomless eyes and striking within a millisecond. Sharapova bounces on her feet, bends low, turns rapidly to the side and thrusts her fangs forward in a bat of her long ponytail. She locates the ball and then follows through her shots with an innate sense of where the jugular is. When she senses vulnerability, she's merciless.

In 1997, Martina Hingis won Wimbledon when she was a few months younger than Sharapova. But Hingis was already a more known quantity, having swept through the juniors and already have taken down a number of stars. Although Sharapova had won three tournaments in her career coming into Wimbledon, she has never won a big crown before nor beaten Top 5 players like Lindsay Davenport and Serena.

Much of the reason why Sharapova rose slower than Hingis had to do with her growth spurt over the past two years, when she complained that she grew so tall so fast that she hadn't gotten used to pulling her large feet and tall frame around. In February after Anastasia Myskina had schooled her in the fourth round of the Australian Open, she talked about how weak she was physically. But she said she was willing to hit the weights and do as much off-court training as necessary to be able to last at the Slams.

"My body is still trying to get used to being my body," she told at the time. "At the beginning of last year I felt terrible because I had my growth spurt. I couldn't feel my body at all. Now I feel better moving, but I still have a lot of improvement to make. Physically, I'm still only at 20 percent of what I'm capable of. I'm getting stronger, but in the gym, I still can't even put up two plates!"

Now standing at least 6-foot-1 inch, Sharapova is still thin, but she's become a tremendous athlete with sinewy muscles who moves as well as any tall champ has before her, including Serena's sister, Venus. In fact, she has the same body type as two-time Wimbledon champ Venus. While she doesn't yet have Venus' huge first serve, she has a far better forehand than Venus had when she was 17 and is a more ambitious returner. Moreover, her serve is very, very good for a player who can't lift two plates. Just imagine how tough she'll be two years from now when she rocking in first serves at 125 mph?

There are those who doubted whether Sharapova had the mental fortitude to win a Slam this young. Her countrywoman, Nadia Petrova, said early in the year that as good as Sharapova was in her rookie year, her sophomore season would be much tougher. Petrova wasn't speaking out of turn because most players acknowledge that it's much more difficult to jump from obscurity into the Top 30 than it is to go from the Top-30 to Wimbledon champion. However, when told of Petrova's comment, Sharapova saw it differently.

"I don't agree with that," she said. "There are times when other players watch you play, but that doesn't matter. The difference this year will be experience. Last year I didn't know what to expect; this year I do."

She sure does and really impressed Serena, who lord knows isn't easy to impress.

"She's kind of like me; she doesn't back off. She keeps giving it her all," Serena said. "I think she treed a little today. She played her best tournament, her best tennis maybe in her life. … I like how she plays everyone really tough and not just a few players. When I see people that do that, then they definitely have a better look at being a champion."

Sharapova is not out-and-out cocky like Hingis was. She come out won't publicly say that she'll be dominating her sport in a year's time. But know this: that's her plan. She may say it in a cool and demure fashion off court, but once on court, she'll be setting off earthquakes with the sheer velocity of her strokes for the rest of her career. After Saturday, the Williamses, the Belgians and even French champ Myskina know that.

"[Number one] is very important," said Sharapova, who will rise to No. 8 in the rankings. "I though winning Wimbledon was a dream and now I can concentrate of my goal of being number one."

2,577 Posts
the article is so ...:tape:

wow. maria is 6'1''???!!!

5,755 Posts
stacyh5 said:
never mind, i found it. looks like a website a couple kids put together. in that case, good job, lad!
I guess you have never heard of Matt Cronin. He's a journalist and he did the announcing for the Roland Garros radio this year. He's done radio for other grand slam tournaments too. I'm not sure of his entire resume, but his site has been around for awhile.
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