PIN-UP PRINCESS MARIA CAN BECOME MODEL CHAMPION

4 July 2004

The 17-year-old Russian produces a stunning display of nerveless elegance

At the end she was just a teenager hugging her dad and trying to call `Mom’ on the mobile. But for 73 minutes Maria Sharapova had ruled Centre Court with a stunning talent and nerveless elegance which will make her a champion for years to come.  Serena Williams was gracious in defeat. The queen is dead, long live the queen.

From the start the script seemed to be upside down. Sharapova may have scuttled back into the dressing room just before but, within moments she had gone three points up on her serve. We have got used to her model-girl composure these last two weeks but here in the final she was a 17-year-old looking the more together of the two players – and her opponent was the defending champion five years her senior.

Sharapova does some modelling when she is not reading Sherlock Holmes or writing her high school essays – she was planning one on Friday afternoon. She certainly has a model’s walk – tall, commanding and serene. When she hits a good shot, she juts out her impossibly long arms and clenches her fist at the end of them. At six feet, she is three inches taller than Serena, who for all her beautiful kit and superb conditioning, began to look positively ungainly in comparison as she prowled the opposing baseline.

At her best Williams so radiates aggression across the net that you worry about her opponents. That’s what we did when Williams went 30 love up on Sharapova’s service in the third game. When Maria got back up to 30-30, it was a sense of relief. We did not expect her to win but we wanted to avoid a drubbing. Then that move in to the left-hand court and the killing double-fisted back-hand. Ouch. It was not just Serena who felt it.

All through that first set we expected the tide to turn. But even Serena’s most brutal shots would not put Sharapova off her stride. Williams communed with her racket, scuffed the line with her shoes, took time out walking to the back of the court. Her face kept its look of queenly calm but, from the sag of the shoulders and the opening of the arms, we knew that her mind was beginning to flutter.

Williams would never lose a championship lightly but the score was getting ridiculous. She failed to convert three deuces on her own service at 1-4 down. It was unbelievable but Maria had got her. First set 6-1, the crowd alight, but surely this was too good to last?

We looked for signs. Was that girlish petulance breaking out when Sharapova tossed her shoulders at a double fault? Was that a sign of wilting as she dragged her toes behind her when Williams had pummeled one past her? She may have come from Moscow via Florida but she was still only 17 for heaven’s sake.

But when Williams breaks, Sharapova breaks back. When it gets to rallies, Sharapova is just as pugnacious in the way she punches those long cross-court back-hands to the corners. In the rallies, the Williams grunts begin to be matched by strange vicious mewing sounds from the other end. Long ago in a fox-hunting youth I remember a sound like that. It was a vixen fighting underground. They didn’t like losing either.

The end became utterly symbolic. A titanic, four deuce, final battle on the Williams serve. Poor Serena was fighting the crowd and the wind as well as her own demons. Some ominous grey rain clouds were racing up too late to save the day. To and fro the rallies went. We held our breath, still not believing the impossible could happen. Twice Williams failed to take advantage points and then the final rally left her dumped, quite literally, on her backside.

The last game was mercifully brief. First point to Serena but then an ace and, in moments, Sharapova had two match points. The second was converted and we knew we were witnessing history. Maria herself could not believe it and so, after hugging the generous and gracious Serena, she did what any 17-year-old would do in such a crisis. She went to find her Dad.

Yuri Sharapova was up in the players’ box. Maria ran up one gangway and then edged along behind the seats to reach him. The applause had softened because the crowd could see what was happening. Eight years ago Yuri had sacrificed everything and spent three hours a day driving to work to support young Maria in Florida. When his daughter finally reached him and folded herself into his arms.

So to the presentation but before that another daughter’s impulse could not be denied. Maria ran back to the stands and borrowed a mobile phone. Yelena Sharapova is back in Florida. “I was trying to call my mom, but I couldn’t get through,” she said at the courtside interview afterwards which she carried out with a mixture of regal aplomb and cascading girly laughter.

Her eyes were alight, her hair flaxen, her golden skin shining with more than just the glow of youth. She said nice things about Serena, hoped for many more great matches, unwittingly giving notice of the ambition which drives. One day Maria Sharapova will be old and wrinkled and, in tennis terms, gone. But none of us will ever forget the moment when her reign began.

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