- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 4, 2004

WIMBLEDON, England — The line wouldn’t connect. How typical. The title was hers, all Centre Court was waiting on her coronation and here was Maria Sharapova, trying — failing — to call her mother on dad’s cell phone.

Sharapova punched buttons. Nothing. Waved her arm in semicircles. No luck. Finally, she gave up, plopping down in her changeover chair, looking less like a freshly minted champion than a frustrated teenager trapped in a signal-squelching shopping mall.

“It keeps switching off,” Sharapova said with a laugh. “I don’t know what’s wrong with it. C’mon, technology. C’mon.”

Her frustration was forgivable: Everything else Sharapova touched yesterday worked to perfection. Behind the punishing strokes and pugnacious spirit that have carried her from distant Siberia to top of the tennis world, the 17-year-old Russian stunned defending champion Serena Williams 6-1, 6-4 in the Wimbledon final.

“It’s amazing,” said Sharapova, who won her first major title and became the youngest women’s Wimbledon champ since Switzerland’s Martina Hingis in 1997. “I never expected this to happen so fast. It’s always been my dream to come here and to win. But it was never in my mind that I would do it this year.”

The match was billed as a lopsided affair, a six-time Grand Slam winner against the second-youngest Wimbledon finalist in the Open era. Williams even intimated as much, yammering beforehand “the lion is the king of the forest, but the tiger is the king of the jungle.”

Presumably, Williams saw herself as the tiger. Whatever. Sharapova never has been in awe. Not when she moved from Russia to the United States at age 7, father Yuri alongside, $700 to their name. Not when she trailed by a set in both her quarterfinal and semifinal victories. And not against Williams, the sport’s supreme intimidator, a player who dealt Sharapova a straight-set loss in their only previous meeting, a springtime match in Miami.

Sharapova has Noxzema Girl good looks — she signed with IMG models last fall — but her freshly scrubbed mien masks a bar brawler’s fight. She woke up with a sore throat. No matter. When delays forced Williams and Sharapova to wait in the Centre Court tunnel for what seemed like forever, Sharapova remained calm; as Williams smiled for prematch pictures, she stood stone-faced.

“There’s something inside [Sharapova] that’s pretty impressive,” said men’s finalist Andy Roddick, who watched some of the match. “No matter what the situation, she’s going to live and die with her strokes, not letting someone take it to her.”

From the opening game, Sharapova dictated play, one grunting groundstroke at a time. Shockingly, she used her lithe, 6-foot frame to outslug the WTA Tour’s chief ball-blaster. Sharapova earned an early break when Williams sent a feeble backhand sailing wide, then pummeled a Williams second serve to take a 5-1 first set lead.

After breaking Williams to pull within 3-4 in the second set, Sharapova glared across the net, slender fingers forming a fist.

“I just go out,” Sharapova said. “Doesn’t really matter who it is [against me]. I just want to win.”

While Sharapova surged, Williams struggled. Stumbled, really, hitting off her back foot and appearing at odds with her body. On one point, Williams slipped and fell on a lunging forehand, getting grass stains on her dress; on another, a Sharapova passing shot deflected off Williams’ racket frame. The ball hit Serena square in the face.

At 4-4 in the second, Williams fought off three break points. But she slipped again while serving on a fourth, and her scrambling forehand recovery shot flew wide. On match point, Williams dumped another forehand into the net.

Sharapova fell to her knees, burying her face in her hands. The moment was improbable. When she was 2, her family fled the Siberian town of Nyagan to avoid the fallout from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear meltdown; at age 7, Sharapova and her father left Russia altogether, landing at a Florida tennis academy.

Yelena, her mother, failed to secure a visa, splitting up the family for nearly two years. Sharapova endured. After the match, she met her father in the stands for a long embrace.

“We’ve been through this together, my whole career,” Sharapova said. “I know how hard it is to watch this stuff from the box. Playing is a lot easier. I owe him so much.”

Williams played the gracious loser, circling the net to embrace her usurper. But a brave grin couldn’t hide her tears. For so long, she made it look easy, beating back big sister Venus and everyone else to become the top player in her sport. Yet the comic-book catsuits and comical screen cameos mask a hard truth: The last 12 months have been an annus horribilis.

Williams underwent left knee surgery last August, then missed eight months of play; in September, her sister Yetunde was murdered in Los Angeles. For the first time in two seasons, the 22-year-old doesn’t hold a major title — and after her desultory effort here, another one hardly seems assured.

“I don’t know how many people can come back and do so well,” said Williams, who failed to become the first player since Steffi Graf to win three straight Wimbledon titles. “But for me, it’s not good enough. … I’m definitely going to triple my efforts, do everything I can to play better next time.”

In the meantime, the play — and the day — belonged to Sharapova. Resplendent on the grass, she waved to the smitten Centre Court crowd, anything but awestruck. Williams sat in her chair, dabbing a towel to glistening eyes. Yuri Sharapov looked down from the stands, beaming, a familiar cell phone pressed to his ear.

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