Wed, Nov 17, 2004 - Page 20 News List

Russian rising star shines in US

WONDERGIRL Maria Sharapova, the second-youngest Wimbledon ladies singles champion in the Open era, beat Serena Williams to win the season-ending showpiece

AGENCIES , LOS ANGELES, HOUSTON AND LONDON

Maria Sharapova makes a return to Serena Williams during their finals match at the WTA Tour Championship at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Monday. Sharapova defeated Williams 4-6, 6-2, 6-4.

PHOTO: EPA

Maria Sharapova's shining year ended in style on Monday as she rallied from four games down in the third set to beat an injured Serena Williams in the final of the WTA Tour Championships.

It was the perfect ending to a storybook season, that saw the 17-year-old Russian dethrone Williams at Wimbledon to become the darling of the tennis world.

"I don't think I could have asked for anything better this year," she said. "It has been an extraordinary year for me ... I have had an amazing year."

While Sharapova's blonde good looks have drawn comparisons to fellow Russian Anna Kournikova, Sharapova has shown this year she has the potential to contend with the game's best on a consistent basis.

Something Kournikova never could.

Her Wimbledon triumph completed a grass-court season that started with a victory in Birmingham, and she also went on to win tournaments in Seoul and Tokyo.

Her performance in the season-ending championships, open only to the top eight players in the points race, was an indication of how far she has progressed.

"It just shows that I have come a long way in a short period of time," said the teen, who ended last year ranked 32nd in the world and goes out of 2004 at a career high of No. 4.

Sharapova became just the second woman to win the Championships in her first appearance. Serena Williams did it in 2001, when Lindsay Davenport withdrew from the final with a knee injury.

Sharapova said her round-robin match against Amelie Mauresmo was a low point, but she was pleased to find she had enough resources to recover.

"When I was playing against Amelie, I was absolutely dead," she said. "I felt that I couldn't go on. But I found an inner strength in myself."

Maria Sharapova's rise to the top

* 2002: Receives wildcard for Indian Wells event, aged 14 years and 10 months. Ends year ranked No. 186 in the world.

* 2003: Qualifies for Australian Open and French Open. Reaches fourth round at Wimbledon, a record-equalling performance by a female wildcard entry. Moves up to 32 in the world, rising 154 places.

* 2004, June: Wins Wimbledon as No. 13 seed to become second-youngest ladies singles champion in Open era after Martina Hingis.

* 2004, Nov. 15: Beats Serena Williams in final of the end-of-season WTA Tour Championships.

* 2004, Nov. 16: At the age of 17, ends a glittering season ranked No. 4 in the world, up 28 places from the previous year.

Source: reuters


Indeed, Sharapova has found out lots of things about herself coping with the whirlwind of interest whipped up by her Wimbledon win.

"There were definitely a lot of difficult periods," she said. "I think that is how I learn to be at the top. That is how I learned about myself.

"After winning Wimbledon at 17, it is a bit of a struggle. I mean, I am still 17 years old. I am just one girl in front of millions of people.

"And a lot of people are watching me, looking at me every second, at what I am doing, and wanting me to win.

"I just had to realize it is not about winning and losing. It is about doing what you can, learning from your mistakes, trying to get better and, most importantly, working hard," she said.

Sharapova admitted she was looking forward to a break, a chance perhaps to spend a little of the US$1 million Championships winner's cheque.

"That'll buy a lot of Manolos," quipped Sharapova, who admits she has a weakness for shoes that now include those of pricey designer Manolo Blahnik.

Sharapova also planned to spread her good fortune, announcing she would donate the Porsche she won to the school children of Beslan, where more than 300 were killed in a hostage-taking in September.

Most of all, Sharapova said, she was looking forward some rest.

"I deserve a vacation," she said. "I deserve a great vacation."

Federer wins

World number one Roger Federer made a winning return from injury on Monday, opening the defense of his Masters Cup crown with a 6-1 7-6 win over Gaston Gaudio.

It was the only match to be completed as a steady drizzle that had already wiped out doubles play finally halted Lleyton Hewitt's match against Spain's Carlos Moya with the Australian leading 5-4.

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