- The Washington Times - Friday, July 2, 2004

WIMBLEDON, England — Grunts became squeals. Squeals became screams. Louder and louder, until it seemed that Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova were guiding the ball through shouting alone, every decibel driving another whiplash groundstroke over the net.

Forget their feminine sides, the modeling and acting gigs, the attendant WTA Tour marketing hooey: Williams and Sharapova both got in touch with their inner Monica Seles yesterday, and the results spoke for themselves. Loudly.

Displaying the flinty nerve so often lacking in contemporary women’s tennis, the duo advanced to the Wimbledon final, as Williams came from behind to defeat France’s Amelie Mauresmo 6-7 (4), 7-5, 6-4 and Sharapova rallied to top Lindsay Davenport 2-6, 7-6 (5), 6-1 in rain-spattered tournament semifinals.

“It was really tough out there today,” said Williams, attempting to become the first woman since Steffi Graf to win three consecutive Wimbledon titles. “It’s been a really tough year for me. This is definitely the most special moment right now in my career. Whatever happens, I’m really excited to be at this point.”

Next comes a heaven-sent Saturday championship — that is, assuming the line judge upstairs is a network executive. On one side, Williams, the sport’s biggest, baddest, most charismatic star; on the other, Sharapova, the 17-year-old Russian with glam slam looks and Grand Slam game.

“This is unbelievable,” said Sharapova, in her first major final and the youngest Wimbledon finalist since Martina Hingis in 1997. “I don’t know how I’m in the finals. I never in the world expected to do so well here so early. I’m amazed.”

Earlier in the tournament, Williams joked that she would like to act in a horror movie, in part because she has a “great scream.” So does Sharapova. Beneath her model mien beats a mongrel heart, a scratching, clawing spirit that recalls Australia’s Lleyton Hewitt — right down to Hewitt’s predilection for shouting “C’mon!”

That fight carried Sharapova against Japan’s Ai Sugiyama, from near-defeat to a three-set quarterfinal victory. And it carried her again against Davenport, a 28-year-old former champion.

Davenport has a history of dumping promising young things in the Wimbledon semis: first Alexandra Stevenson in 1999, then Jelena Dokic in 2000. Early on, a repeat looked inevitable, as Davenport overpowered Sharapova with crackling serves down the middle, shot put returns that crash-landed just inside the baseline.

Next came a 58-minute rain delay; when it passed, Sharapova returned a different player. Screaming with every stroke, bouncing between points, pumping her fist with every winner, Sharapova rallied from a set and two games down to force a second set tiebreak.

On set point, Sharapova ended a long rally with a ferocious crosscourt backhand; father Yuri, who moved with her from Russia to Florida when Sharapova was 6, stood and applauded.

Sharapova broke Davenport in the first game of the third, yelping “C’mon!” after Davenport sent a backhand long. From there, she teed off on Davenport’s second serve, blasting one return winner at 85mph. The match slipping away, Davenport could only wipe her brow, weary and spent.

“I had control of the match,” said Davenport, who afterward hinted that this was her last Wimbledon. “She took it from me.”

Mauresmo could say the same. The 24-year-old Frenchwoman has long been considered the anti-Sharapova, a player whose all-court ability is matched by an all-world lack of intestinal fortitude.

Against Williams, though, Mauresmo shed her gag tag — at least for one day. Moving forward and hitting with confidence, she stunned Williams in a first set tiebreak.

At 3-3 in the second set, Mauresmo grabbed her lower back, calling for WTA trainer Lisa Heller. “It’s always the same,” Mauresmo lamented, referring to an injury that first flared in early spring.

Heller led her off the court for treatment; as the match progressed, Mauresmo grimaced and gulped anti-inflammatories but refused to concede. When Williams let loose a primal scream in the third, Mauresmo screamed right back.

“Maybe [my back] made it easier for her to be able to return and break me,” Mauresmo said. “Maybe it would have been the same result if the back was good. You never know.”

Previously untested in the tournament, Williams sometimes seemed befuddled, once tripping over her own racket. But after smashing said racket in the second, she too showed grit, holding serve with a backhand blast that cracked the racket’s frame.

Formerly passive, Williams began to shout; like Sharapova, her comeback was marked by fist pumps. Up 5-4 in the third, she earned a double match point with a return down the line. When Mauresmo next sent a forehand long, Williams jumped up and down, all the way back from a left knee injury that kept her sidelined for eight months.

“It’s tough to come back after injury, surgery,” she said. “It’s just always about keeping a positive attitude. … I just kept fighting. That’s really all I had.”

That was enough. Together, Williams and Sharapova provided exactly what the women’s game has needed of late: fierce, fearless play, an antidote to the jittery French Open final between sleepless Anastasia Myskina and sobbing Elena Dementieva, a match that drew low ratings and sneering criticism.

“We both pump our fist a lot,” Williams said of Sharapova.

When it was over, Williams unclenched her fingers and waved to the crowd, mirroring the beaming Sharapova. Oracene Price, Serena’s mother, looked down from the friend’s box; earlier, Yuri Sharapov had looked up at the sky, the horizon as vast the grit shown below.

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