Sharapova caps off an 'amazing year'

Updated: November 16, 2004, 4:34 PM ET
By Miki Turner | Special to ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- Everything was going Serena Williams' way.

When she ended Amelie Mauresmo's quest to be No. 1 with a three-set victory in the WTA Championships semifinals on Sunday, Williams had served notice that no one should ever bet against a six-time Grand Slam champion wearing a pink tutu and playing in front of her hometown crowd.

Williams' air of invincibility was evident again Monday, when she took a 4-0 lead in the third set against sixth-ranked Maria Sharapova in front of a record crowd (11,397) in the final at the Staples Center. At that point, it seemed like nothing could stop the eighth-ranked Williams from avenging her Wimbledon loss to Sharapova and ending a difficult season on the highest of notes.

Then, everything changed. Williams first fell victim to an abdominal injury, then to Sharapova, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4.

"It's definitely a muscle pull, definitely a muscle strain or a tear unfortunately," Williams said. "I definitely thought about not finishing the match, but I like to fight, I guess. But (the pain), on a zero to a 10, it was about a 10½."

For Sharapova, the victory caps a magical season in which a 17-year-old Russian became the second youngest woman to win Wimbledon during the Open era and the second Russian woman to win a Grand Slam title, following Anastasia Myskina's victory at Roland Garros in May. She started the year at No. 32 and ends it at No. 4.

And she's $1 million richer.

Judging by her lack of emotion, it might take Sharapova a few days to realize all that she's accomplished in such a short time.

"It has just been an extraordinary year for me," said Sharapova, who said she will donate the Porsche Cayenne she won to the victims of the Russian school massacre. "And to finish it off just beating players that are the best in the world -- I mean, I know that I am not showing a lot of emotion, but I am sort of just speechless because I have had an amazing year. And to achieve so much at 17, I don't think a lot of people still realize I am still 17."

For Williams, the year ends in much the same way as it began -- with uncertainty.

Sometime today she'll have an MRI to determine the extent of her injury. Although it looked as though she was fine through the first two sets, Williams said that she actually felt something in her stomach pop during the first game of the match. With Sharapova up 5-2 in the second set, Williams took a 10-minute medical timeout. When she returned, Sharapova broke Williams' serve with a forehand winner, taking the second set.

Although her first serve percentage began slipping early in the second set, Williams hit enough winners to go up 4-0 in the third. In the set's first and third games, Sharapova only scored one point on serve. In Game 2, Williams held serve at love, and at 15-all in Game 4, she served consecutive aces and won the game on Sharapova's errant forehand.

It was then that it became apparent to everyone in the building that something was wrong with Williams. Although a WTA trainer wrapped her midsection during a break, Williams saw her average service speed plummet from 100 mph to the low 60s. A now rejuvenated Sharapova won the next six games easily.

At one point during that set, Williams was in so much pain in the lower left side of her abdomen that she could barely raise her arm. In her final two service games, her serve resembled that of a country club player four times her age.

But it was a gallant and risky effort by Williams, who said she only went on because she didn't want to "disappoint" the fans.

"I don't know, I just started hitting every ball as hard as I could and I lived off of fear of her mistakes," Williams said. "When she stopped making them, she was able to come back in the match. I don't know how I was able to stay out there. I can't imagine me going to hit a serve right now."

Although it's too soon to determine what effect this latest setback might have on Williams, it does suggest that the landscape in women's tennis is about to change -- again. William's sister Venus had a similar injury in 2003, forcing her to take a six-month hiatus. To this day, she's not the same player she once was. It often takes more than physical rehab to fix ailing athletes. Sometimes the mental injuries are just as disabling, if not more.

In the past six days, Williams had the opportunity to face some of the best players in the world. Davenport. Mauresmo. Dementieva. She didn't overpower her opponents as she's done in the past; she just found ways to get past them.

"Yeah, I definitely had an up-and-down year, I guess," Williams said. "I think overall, it has been a really tough year for me in general. So, I just try to stay positive."

When asked what positives she could take from her current situation into next year, she said, "I don't care to relate my positives right now."

"It is extremely disappointing," Williams continued. "I really figured I would have a good chance at this title. And you know, there really is nothing I can do about it. I can't rewind time. I don't know where I went wrong or where it went wrong. I have no idea. So there is nothing I can really do about it. I can only try and get better."

So, while Williams will be spending part of Tuesday with a doctor, Sharapova will likely hit the shops on Rodeo, finding ways to spend some of that pocket change she earned Monday night.

Barring injury, her future is as bright as can be. And she knows it.

"Well, I certainly deserve a spot on that list," she said when asked how it felt to be one of the top players in the world. "I mean, I don't think about it every day that, yes, I am one of them. But, of course, I do consider myself one after beating them."

And if that's the case, there might not be anything that anyone can do about that.

Maybe that's just the thing Williams needs to get better.

Miki Turner, a regular contributor to Page 3, is covering the WTA Tour Championships for ESPN.com. She can be reached at dmiki@aol.com.

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