Maria, you've got to see her
SERENA Williams summed it up perfectly. "Congratulations on winning your first grand slam," she said, having been run ragged by Maria Sharapova for two startling sets. ‘First’ grand slam. She made the point clearly. There will be more. If yesterday’s nerveless performance is anything to go by, there will be many more.
Everyone in tennis has seen Sharapova coming for more than a year. She is still only 17 but already she had won three titles coming into Wimbledon, the last coming on grass in Birmingham three weeks ago. But not even she could believe that she was ready for her first grand slam success. Even when it was over she still could not get her head around the fact that she had won. "Do you believe it?" Sue Barker asked as Sharapova hugged the trophy. "No!" was the simple reply.
But Williams could believe it. She had been given a hiding in the first set and a lesson in the second. Any hopes she might have had that her young rival would choke, falter or fade under the immense pressure of playing her first major final on the Centre Court were soon blown away by the power, the control an the sheer determination of the Russian teenager. "I love to compete," Sharapova had warned earlier in the week, "and I love to win." She did both and she was blown away by how it felt.
Sharapova has got it all. From the first moment she walked on to a tennis court the photographers fell in love with her, with her lithe six-foot frame, blonde hair, blue eyes and legs all the way up to her earlobes. The journalists adored her for her bubbly enthusiasm and cut-to-the-chase response to their questions. And she could play, too. This was no faux Kournikova, this was the real McCoy. The players knew it, too.
Martina Hingis had spotted Sharapova’s talent early on. What impressed her most was not the thumping backhand or the cracking serve. It was the mental strength that fascinated Hingis. It was something she recognised and understood implicitly.
"She reminds me of me," Hingis said. "I remember hitting with Maria when she was just a 12-year-old. You could see the potential, the burning desire even then. Maria is as mean as a snake. She is clever too."
And she was all of that against Williams. Attack was obviously the best form of defence so she went face to face and toe to toe with the champion. She took on the famed and fearsome Williams backhand and bettered it. She got her racquet on almost every Williams serve. She may not have been able to do much with every return but she was making Williams doubt her own abilities. Then Sharapova started to play her own game.
When she was starting out, she had the option to play either left or right-handed, and to this day she will sometimes play a one-handed, left-handed shot when she has been stretched to the limit. As a child she was told to play right-handed but with a two-handed backhand. The reason was a simple one and, it turned out, a championship-winning one. If she was naturally left-handed, the support hand on that backhand shot would add power, guidance and even more racquet head speed as she could snap the racquet through the ball at the last second. And it is that backhand that has torn the very best to shreds.
For a tall girl, she moves extremely well and is supple enough to get down to lowest of shots on the slick grass of the Centre Court. Shots that have others flapping in despair, she leaps on, picks up and leathers back with venom. And thanks to that added left-hand power, she can create angles from nowhere with the backhand. Time and again, she has sent screaming shots cross court to fizz and die on the turf before her opponent has even seen them coming.
Then there is the serve. Not only does it beam down from a great height, but it is directed with fearless optimism. There are the occasional double faults, but they are seldom nervous and tentative mistakes but rather a young woman going for a little too much on a second delivery. As she stood to serve for the championship, she would have been forgiven for a moment of panic, a tremble in the racquet arm. But no. She offered up an ace and two service winners to get her to match point and sank to her knees in joy and disbelief as Williams made one last hash of her forehand on match point.
The dream that Sharapova had as she headed for America and the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy at the age of nine had come true. As Williams had noted, this is the first of many major titles. The only word of warning came from Hingis: "I just wonder what will happen when her first man comes along."
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