Note: On Friday, Maria Sharapova will head into her 2014 Brisbane semifinal against Serena Williams with a 2-14 record versus her so-called rival. This article was written after Sharapova bested Serena for the 2004 WTA Championships title at the Staples Center.
LOS ANGELES – For someone whose sponsors believes that her smile is worth about $5 million annually, Maria Sharapova was in a wild state of confusion most of the week at the WTA Championships, frowning, glaring and sometimes sneering.
It is not easy to be the flavor of the year when your have yet to taste most of the fruits of your success. It’s not easy being an immensely popular Wimbledon champion in the locker room when your all your friends seem to have left the building, or when half the Russian Fed Cup team is sitting courtside cheering against you. It’s certainly not easy trying to push your game to warp speed when you have so much improving to do, let alone facing down Serena Williams in her house.
But life has never been easy for Sharapova and maybe she likes it that way. In an extremely difficult and often bizarre match, the Russian undercut an injured Serena Williams 4-6, 6-2, 6-4 to win the WTA Championships on Monday. Sharapova finally cracked a smile and told of her immense relief that her season is over.
“There were a lot of difficult periods,” she said. “I learned a lot about myself. After winning Wimbledon at 17, it was a bit of a struggle. There’s a lot of things expectations. I had to face a lot. I’m just one girl in front of millions of people, with a lot of people watching what I’m doing, wanting me to win. I had to realize it’s not about winning and losing, it’s about doing what you can, learning from your mistakes, and most importantly, working hard.”
Even though Sharapova can be difficult to be around, she has certainly brought a lot of new attention to the sport. Yes, part of that has to do with her looks, but some of that has to do with how fiercely she competes and how obvious it is that’s she not just some tall pretty blonde looking for the next available pop singer.
She can really play and at close look, it’s apparent just how much she’s improved since Wimbledon. She’s still a bit gawky, does not move that well to her left, frequently flubs her volleys and is no expert strategist, but she really does understand what her weapons are. Her serve is much more consistent than it was at year’s outset, her hooking forehand is getting better by the day and although she’s not very fast, she’s making a tremendous effort to be a better retriever. When she hits behind players, there’s almost no reason for them to attempt to spin around and pick up the ball, because it’s already gone.
So now here she is, ending the year ranked No. 4, behind Lindsay Davenport, Amelie Mauresmo and Anastasia Myskina. Those are all veteran players. Every other teen and player between the ages of 20 and 22 can take a deep bow to her. She beat the best of the best at Championships and no one can take that away from her.
“It shows that I’ve come a long way n a short period of time,” Sharapova said. “To be able to beat top players and playing five days in a row with my body, it’s not very easy. When I was playing against [Amelie] Mauresmo, I was absolutely dead and I didn’t think I could go on. I found an inner strength.”
Pity Serena, who played a terrific first set behind her gigantic serve and well placed groundies. She may have won the match had she not strained her abdominal muscle early on. But by midway through the second set, she had slowed down her serve. Serena took a medical timeout after the seventh game and even a tight wrap didn’t do her much good in the serving department, as her big heater fell into the 75-mph range.
“I really thought it was just a stitch, and it would go away,” Serena said. “I thought at times I wouldn’t finish, but I like to fight. On a 0-10 scale, the pain was a 10 and a half.”
Serena is going to have an MRI on Tuesday because she suspects she might have torn her abdominal muscle. She didn’t risk cranking up big serves because she recalls what happened in the 2003 Wimbledon semis, when her sister Venus continued to play against Kim Clijsters despite an abdominal strain and eventually tore it. Venus also played the final against Serena (mostly to prove to fans that the sisters always try hard against each other). Consequently, she was off the tour for the next six months.
“I was thinking I’m not going to be out six months,” Serena said. “I wasn’t going to go for any big serves because it’s not worth it with the New Year coming around.”
Serena nearly pulled off a miracle, going for broke off the ground in the third set and grabbing a 4-0 lead, while Sharapova lost her focus. But after Sharapova held to 4-1, she found a mental opening and grew confident again, bullying Serena’s second serves. A few huge forehands later, Sharapova was screaming for joy. Her father Yuri joined in with a bear hug a minute later.
“I’m still in shock. I can’t believe the way I pulled it out,” she said. “I don’t think I could have asked for anything better this year. It’s been extraordinary. To finish it off by beating the best in the world — I’ve accomplished so much at 17-years-old. A lot of people don’t realize that I’m still 17. It’s very unreal the way I stuck in there. It’s been an amazing year.”
Serena couldn’t believe what had occurred. She fought like hell to get to the final and now she’ll end the year with only two titles, nothing for a six-time Slam champ to chat with the Hollywood crowd about.
“It’s been a really tough for year for in general. It’s extremely disappointing,” said Williams. “I figured I had a good chance at this title. There’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t rewind time. I don’t know where I went wrong.”
On court, little went wrong for Sharapova this week. She made few friends off court with her complaining about the heaviness of the balls, but she clearly signaled that a skinny Siberia native won’t be pushed around. She’s smiled broadly when she discussed the “great vacation” she going to take and showed a lot of heart in donating the new Porsche Cayenne she won to the victims of the Beslan, Russia, terrorist attack in the early September. She also showed her trademark spunk when asked whether she’s a legitimate top five player.
“I deserve a spot on the list,” she said. “I consider myself one of them after beating them.”