Sharapova shows she's ready to dance

Updated: July 3, 2004, 2:13 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- Intimidation always has been Serena Williams' signature, but on Saturday a slender 17-year-old Russian came straight at the two-time defending champion.

Maria Sharapova can't believe she's going to the ball.

It was the third game of the second set and Sharapova, standing inside the service line, ripped a vicious, swinging forehand volley that hit Williams flush on the nose. It was astonishing in its audacity and the precision with which it was struck. It was, in retrospect, symbolic of Sharapova's command and poise. She wasn't merely happy to be in a Grand Slam final; she hungrily seized the biggest moment of her life.

She is the fresh face of tennis, but she is as hard as steel. Sharapova matched Williams, shriek for shriek, fist-pump for fist-pump and glare for glare. But in the end, she was that sweet 17-year-old in a simple white dress, falling to her knees at Centre Court and burying her head in her hands.

In a monumental upset, Sharapova hammered Williams 6-1, 6-4 in a nearly nerveless Wimbledon final that was over in 73 minutes. Afterward, Sharapova, the second-youngest Wimbledon champion in the Open era, ran into the stands to embrace her father, Yuri. Even before the Siberian-born blonde received the sterling trophy, she tried to phone her mother, Yelena, back home in Florida, but the call didn't go through -- her only disappointment in a life-altering day.

Consider this: Sharapova is so young, WTA Tour rules still prevent her from playing a full schedule. A 17-year-old is allowed to play only 13 events in a season; Wimbledon was Sharapova's 10th tournament.

"I never, never in my life expected this to happen so fast," said Sharapova. "When I came off the court and saw the board with my name on it, 2004 Wimbledon Champion, that was just it for me.

"To tell you the truth, I don't know what happened in the match. I don't know how I won. I was in my own little world -- I don't know what world that was, really."

Williams had the same perspective.

"I mean, I just didn't -- I don't know what happened," Williams said. "I have to look at the film. I didn't play great, and I didn't win."

There was a time when the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, seemed on the verge of long-term dominance. In one amazing run, they appeared together in four straight Grand Slam finals. They have won a combined 10 major singles championships but, for the first time since 1998, neither one currently holds a Grand Slam title.

Injuries, outside interests and an influx of talent have profoundly altered the dynamic. Justine Henin-Hardenne is the reigning U.S. Open and the Australian Open champion, Anastasia Myskina won the French Open last month and now Sharapova has broken through. Before Roland Garros, Russian women had won zero Grand Slam singles titles. Now they have two in a row.

Certainly, Venus, 24, and Serena, 22, will challenge for and win more Grand Slam titles -- they just have a lot more company than before. Henin-Hardenne just turned 22, Myskina hits 23 next week and Kim Clijsters just turned 21. Venus lost here in the second round to a 19-year-old Croatian named Karolina Sprem.

And then there is Sharapova, a supernova in every respect. At 17 years and two months, she is nearly nine months younger that Serena was when she won the family's first Grand Slam, the 1999 U.S. Open.

Serena Williams has always been a perfectionist. She has always driven herself harder than her sister. Coming off an eight-month absence following knee surgery last August, Williams wanted to win badly, perhaps too badly. After her rousing semifinal victory over Amelie Mauresmo, she said this title would represent the highest moment of her career, which is saying something.

"I think I put too much stress on myself going into it," she said. "I really wanted to win more than anything. I was so focused the night before, the day before, a week before. I was so, 'You know, I got to do this.'

"Maybe I shouldn't be so hard on myself."

Williams still has the biggest game in women's tennis but, under stress, her forehand has been known to break down. Sharapova -- who was in tears on Friday night when she came down with a sore throat -- attacked it early and often. Williams cracked.

In the fourth game of the match, serving to level things at 2-all, Williams grew tentative. Her toss, a window to a nervous psyche, tightened up. Twice, she used two hands on her forehand, a telling sign of growing concern. Sharapova jumped on her break-point serve and Williams' off-balance backhand return soared long.

Sharapova, almost inexplicably, won the last five games of the set, breaking Williams again at 1-4 when she stepped into a second serve and stroked a short backhand with a ridiculous angle. In 30 minutes, Sharapova had already stunned most of the tennis experts, who predicted that experience would prevail.

Predictably, Williams came back. Just as she had against Mauresmo, she steadied her nerves and started making fewer mistakes. Williams fell down heavily trying to run down another wide Sharapova forehand and she took that blow to the face, but she didn't quit. She broke Sharapova to take a 4-2 lead and the match seemed headed to an ultimate set.

Then Sharapova won the last four games. The watershed game was the ninth, with Williams serving at 4-all, a gnarly four-deuce affair that finally went to Sharapova when Williams' rushed forehand (she had fallen down) went wide. A big forehand, on her second match point, forced Williams' forehand into the net and Sharapova collapsed on her knees.

It was the final flourish, the incredibly happy ending, in a fairy-tale odyssey that her life has become.

She was 7 years old when she rallied with Martina Navratilova in an exhibition in Russia. Impressed, Navratilova counseled the family to take her to America. With no prior arrangements, she and her father arrived at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla. They were taken in and she began living with and competing against girls who were five, six and seven years older than she was.

A decade later, at the highest level of the game, she's still beating the older girls.

Sharapova acted her age only twice. Addressing the crowd during the trophy presentation, she sounded like shrill teenager, when she said she was sorry she took Williams' trophy -- in a voice that didn't sound sorry at all.

Near the end of her press conference, Sharapova said she was looking forward to the All England Club champions gala on Sunday night.

"I'll be flying to New York after the ball tomorrow," she said, pausing and closing her eyes. "I can't imagine I'm saying this:

"I'm going to the ball."

Greg Garber is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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