SHARAPOVA MAKES REGAL PROGRESS

2 July 2006

The new princess marched serenely on. An hour earlier Steffi Graf had looked down from the Royal Box as Andre Agassi bowed out, now Maria Sharapova lit up the Centre Court as she crushed the veteran Amy Frazier 6-3, 6-2.

One of the few moments of tension came with a double fault when she served for the match, but otherwise Sharapova was a vision of superb, bronzed Amazonian style which may well take her right through to the final on Saturday.

Opposite her, 34-year-old Frazier ended up looking a bit anaemic as she battled to tie down the rampant Russian and gifted her 10 double faults. But the St Louis-born player had some chances in the first set to embarrass the tennis royalty on the other side of the net. She had three break points to get the set back to 5-4 but opportunities are there to be taken. Last year Frazier celebrated her 18th consecutive top-70 finish, but this was to be no happy ending.

This was welcome match practice for Sharapova who had missed two months of the season because of an ankle injury. Her return at the French Open saw her reach the quarter-finals but her 13-match winning streak on the Edgbaston grass was ended by the then world number 81, Jamea Jackson. It was her worst defeat in ranking terms in almost two years.

As she goes into the second week it is hard to know how close to the real Sharapova she may come. In yesterday’s glorious sunshine she looked good enough but, with due respect to Frazier and, indeed, to Sharapova’s earlier opponents, they have hardly been more than hitting partners.

Sharapova now faces the Italian Flavia Pennetta, who is rated here as the 16th seed, but that is more to do with her competence on clay than her results on grass. Sharapova should not have much trouble in progressing further and her many admirers will be hoping she soon returns to the sparkle which so lit up Centre Court when she took the title as a 17-year-old in 2004.

Certainly there were welcome signs of that marvellous best as she made 24 winners and just 10 unforced errors against the wilting Frazier. Indeed, Sharapova was never broken in the 74-minute match and while some critics still feel that her footwork has not yet fully adapted to the surface, the signs look good.

For prior to that Edgbaston defeat by Jackson, the golden girl had boasted the best winning percentage on grass in the whole history of the Sony Ericsson WTA tour. The 19-year-old has only ever lost four matches on the surface and when you see her at full stretch, with those yelping gasps of effort, you appreciate just what an opponent the others have coming at them this week.

The best point of the whole match came in the seventh game of the second set. Frazier was fighting for her life and stretching Sharapova from one side of the court to another. Finally she seemed to have the former champion beaten only for Sharapova to bend her long arm and body round in an astonishing piece of leverage which ignited the crowd as much as it flattened the opponent.

Pennetta, the girl friend of former world number one Carlos Moya, is not the quietest of players on court either. Indeed, spectators have sometimes been advised to have ear plugs to avoid an induction to some of Italy’s choicer obscenities. Her upcoming clash with Sharapova might be interesting for things other than tennis.

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