WIMBLEDON, JULY 2004 – Maria Sharapova has never really been afraid of much – not whether she would see her mother again after being yanked away from her homeland at the age of eight and dropped down in a tennis factory in South Florida, or whether she would fit in with her snarling gum-smacking peers in America.
Instead, she believed her father, Yuri, who told her that she had a higher purpose as a tennis player. But on the Friday night before the Wimbledon final when she felt a bad cold coming on, she wept, because she feared she might be too congested on Saturday to unleash a full throat full of shrieking strokes.
But when the sun rose, Sharapova breathed freely and she went on to wipe out two-time defending champion Serena Williams — the sport’s most feared woman — 6-1, 6-4 in the final.
In 1997, Martina Hingis won Wimbledon when she was a few months younger than Sharapova. But Hingis was already known, having swept through the juniors, the Aussie Open and a number of stars. Although Sharapova had won three tournaments coming into Wimbledon, she had never claimed a big crown nor beaten top five players.
Sharapova had risen slower than Hingis in large measure due to her growth spurt over the past two years, when she complained that she grew so tall so fast that she hadn’t gotten used to pulling her large feet and tall frame around. In February after Anastasia Myskina had schooled her at the Australian Open, she talked about how weak she was physically. But she said she was willing to hit the weights and do as much off-court training as necessary to be able to last at the Slams.
“My body is still trying to get used to being my body,” she said at the time. “At the beginning of last year I felt terrible because I had my growth spurt. I couldn’t feel my body at all. Now I feel better moving, but I still have a lot of improvement to make. Physically, I’m only 20 percent of what I’m capable of. I’m getting stronger, but in the gym, I still can’t even put up two plates!”
Now standing at least 6-foot-1 inch, Sharapova is still thin, but she’s become a tremendous athlete with sinewy muscles who moves almost as well as any tall champ has before her, including Venus. In fact, she has the same body type as two-time Wimbledon champ Venus. While she doesn’t yet have Venus’ huge first serve, she has a far better forehand than Venus had when she was 17 and is a more ambitious returner. Moreover, her serve is very, very good for a player who couldn’t lift two plates. Just imagine how tough she’ll be two years from now when she rocking in serves at 125 mph?
There are those who doubted whether Sharapova had the mental fortitude to win a Slam this young. Her countrywoman, Nadia Petrova, had said that as good as Sharapova was in her rookie year, her sophomore season would be much tougher. Petrova wasn’t speaking out of turn because most players acknowledge that it’s more difficult to jump from obscurity into the top 30 than it is to go from the top-30 to Wimbledon champion. Sharapova countered the common wisdom.
“I don’t agree,” she said. “Other players watch you play, but that doesn’t matter. The difference this year will be experience. Last year I didn’t know what to expect, this year I do.”
She sure does and really impressed Serena, who isn’t easily impressed. “She’s kind of like me, she doesn’t back off. She keeps giving it her all,” Serena said. “She treed a little today. She played her best tournament, her best maybe in her life…. She plays everyone really tough. When I see people that do that, they definitely have a better look at being a champion.”
Mentally, Sharapova is far beyond her 17 years. Even when she was babe in the woods being trotted out prematurely as ‘the next cute Russian blonde with potential’, it was easy to tell just how naturally smart she was. She took to English like a mid-court sitter, grasping the language in four months and now she can sling teenage slang like an L.A. mall rat.
Sharapova understands that when you can hit the ball as powerfully and accurately as she can when she’s in her zone, that the guile and experience of an opponent doesn’t matter. Give credit to her LA-based coach Robert Lansdorp or Florida’s Nick Bollettieri, but you can’t only instill so much of the no-fear ferocity in a player. That’s what Williams found out in the final.
Sharapova didn’t allow the six-time Grand Slam champion to claw her way into the match like Williams did in the semifinals against Amelie Mauresmo. The Siberian-born inside the baseliner did not let Serena establish herself early like Lindsay Davenport did in the first set of their semifinal before fellow Lansdorp pupil Sharapova punched her out in three. It was a torrent of big serves and huge returns crosscourt and down the line. It was one in-your-face groundstroke after another from a relentlessly hard worker who’s about as self aware as any kid you’ll meet and who never had the benefit of a formal education, let alone a normal childhood jammed with dozens of Saturday’s lip-synching Britney Spears with friends.
It’s easy to say that Serena didn’t play well and note how vulnerable her forehand was at key moments. But the fact of the matter is that Sharapova simply suffocated her and challenged her to play at 100 percent the entire match. At her best, Serena is capable of doing so, but she hasn’t consistently displayed her A-plus game in a year’s time. Pay no attention to Serena’s post match comment that she played only “20 percent” of her ability. She was at about 80 percent, but needed to be at the pinnacle to take down an in-form Sharapova.
Even when Serena briefly bounced to a 4-2 lead in the second set, Sharapova was waiting with a roundhouse left hook or a sharp overhand right. The glorified Ms. Williams thought she might be able to leap to another three-set victory until Sharapova screamed an inside-out backhand return winner to break back to 3-4. Then the Russian held behind two deep forehands that burnt the parched grass to 4-4. Serena strained to try and hold serve in the next game, but Sharapova was keenly reading her serve on the deuce side and keeping her guessing. On Sharapova’s fourth break point, a clearly stressed Serena slipped and pushed a forehand wide.
Few questioned then that Maria ‘I’ve never had nerves’ Sharapova could serve it out and on match point, she crushed another forehand deep that Serena was unable to lift over the net. She collapsed to her knees, raised her arms up, received numerous bear hugs from her papa, Yuri (never mind that she couldn’t reach her mom on her cell phone), and read the inscription on the Wimbledon champion’s Rosewater Dish. It must have said something like, ‘2004: Write your name here if you’re a multi-talented Russian teen who won’t choke.’
As the hissing and shrieking Sharapova says, she knows how to “snake” her way into points. Not like some meek garden-variety snake, but like a king cobra, looming tall with it’s back arched, flashing its fathomless eyes and striking within a mili-second. Sharapova bounces on her feet, bends low, turns rapidly to the side and thrusts her fangs forward in a bat of her long ponytail. She locates the ball and then follows through her shots with an innate sense of where the jugular is. When she spots vulnerability, she’s merciless. “I have the talent for it,” Sharapova said. “I’m not going to hide that. I feel if I work hard that it will pay off. I remember the tough times and I worked hard. Look where I’ve gone from there.”
Very, very far.
Sharapova isn’t overly cocky like Hingis was. She won’t say that she’ll be dominating in a year’s time. But know this – that’s her plan. Yes, she’s cool and demure off court, but once on court, she’ll be setting off earthquakes with the sheer velocity of her strokes for the rest of her career. After Wimbledon, the Williamses, the Belgians and French champ Myskina know that.
“[Number one] is very important,” said Sharapova, who will rose to No. 8 in the rankings. “I thought winning Wimbledon was a dream and now I can concentrate of my goal of being number one.”
It may not be all that long.