- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 5, 2004

NEW YORK — Maria Sharapova and her father often trade glances between points. In the stands, Dad pounds his fist on his chest, and she mimics the signal.

It represents a simple message — “Play with heart!” — but the Wimbledon champion didn’t use the gesture during a 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 upset loss to Mary Pierce in the U.S. Open’s third round yesterday.

Instead, right over her heart and just below her sponsor’s logo, Sharapova’s silver dress carried a plain black ribbon. She wore it in memory of the more than 340 people, nearly half children, killed in a hostage-taking at a school in her native Russia.

“I lost today, but I still have to move on. It’s not the end of the world,” said Sharapova, who double-faulted 14 times and dropped the final five games. “There are a lot more important things in the world going on right now.”

Given her almost perfect English, her all-grown-up strokes, and her poise on and off the court, it’s easy to forget that Sharapova is just 17 and was born in Siberia.

If she hadn’t flashed the tennis ability that prompted a move to Florida a decade ago, Sharapova might very well be just another teen readjusting to high school life this week, half a world away.

“The first of September is when so many kids go to school, the first day back. They go in with flowers and the whole family,” she said. “Unfortunately, the terrorists decided to do something bad with those families and kids. It just shows that my loss is a little thing.”

As far as tennis goes, though, her exit was the day’s most significant development, more surprising than No.3 Carlos Moya’s 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 7-5 collapse against 100th-ranked Oliver Rochus of Belgium, at 5-foot-5 the shortest ATP Tour regular.

Otherwise, the top players advanced in straight sets, including Justine Henin-Hardenne, Lindsay Davenport, Venus Williams, Roger Federer, Andre Agassi and Tim Henman.

Agassi’s next opponent will be Sargis Sargsian, who erased a two-set deficit and saved two match points to beat Paul-Henri Mathieu 4-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2, 7-6 (4) in 4 hours, 41 minutes. Add in his second-round upset of No.10 Nicolas Massu — at 5:09, the second-longest match in tournament history ? and Sargsian broke the record for longest consecutive Open matches.

“I don’t know how I did it,” said Sargsian, an Armenian ranked 54th and only once before this far at a major.

Often mistaken by security guards for a ball boy or a junior player, Rochus entered the tournament with a 76-101 career mark and an 0-4 Open record. That last fact prompted Moya to ask incredulously, “He never won?”

Now Rochus is one victory shy of the .500 mark in New York. The Belgian knocked off No.27 Mario Ancic, a Wimbledon semifinalist, in the first round, and can reach his first Grand Slam quarterfinal by beating No.22 Dominik Hrbaty.

“That’s why you don’t underestimate anybody,” said Agassi, a 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 winner over No.25 Jiri Novak.

Moya won the 1998 French Open, but he’s been a quarterfinalist at just three of his past 20 majors, and he was largely his own undoing yesterday. He made 61 unforced errors, and double-faulted on match point.

When they met at the net, Rochus looked straight at the 6-foot-3 Moya’s chest. Moya patted Rochus’ shoulder, as if offering kudos to a kid brother.

“It happens in tennis sometimes: You don’t know why you play good,” Rochus said.

Everyone knows that No.1s Roger Federer and Justine Henin-Hardenne are as good as it gets these days. Henin-Hardenne beat Lisa Raymond 6-4, 6-3, while Federer’s 6-0, 6-4, 7-6 (7) victory over No.31 Fabrice Santoro put him in the round of 16 for the fourth straight year.

“The way he’s playing now, he doesn’t have to be scared of anyone,” Santoro said.

But Federer has never been past the Open’s fourth round. If he does reach the quarterfinals, his opponent could be Agassi, an eight-time major champion.

Agassi’s right sneaker’s sole tore away against Novak, so he reached into his bag for a plastic tube of glue and reattached it. That was the biggest blip in another easy victory.

“You never know when you need your best tennis,” Agassi said. “That’s why it’s always best to save it for when you do.”

Pierce, a dozen years older than Sharapova, was superb after trailing 3-1 in the third set. The 1995 Australian Open and 2000 French Open champion displayed the powerful groundstrokes she rebuilt after missing months at a time with back and shoulder injuries.

When Sharapova slapped a return into the net on match point, Pierce went to her changeover chair, knelt and prayed.

“I just appreciate it so much more,” said Pierce, who faces No.9 Svetlana Kuznetsova next. “I believe in myself, and it’s nice to have that confirmation actually happen in reality.”

Sharapova dropped to 5-4 since winning Wimbledon, and two of those victories were three-setters at the Open. Is it possible off-court commitments are taking a toll?

“It’s not like she lost the match today because she had a photo shoot three weeks ago,” coach Robert Lansdorp said. “She has to practice a little harder. We have to give her a little bit of time. She’ll be fine.”

Half an hour after her loss, Sharapova sat in a lounge, picking at a sandwich and chatting on a cell phone. She certainly didn’t seem too flustered. A few feet away, her father sat with Lansdorp, studying the stats and quietly dissecting what happened.

During the match, Dad drew a warning from the chair umpire for coaching.

“My dad was shouting something, but I wasn’t really looking,” Sharapova said. “I was like, ‘Whatever.’”

Now that sounds like just another teen, huh?

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