Sharapova Wins Wimbledon After Improbable Journey
By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 4, 2004; Page A01
WIMBLEDON, England, July 3 -- For 73 minutes Saturday, Maria Sharapova was a stern-faced study in composure as she whacked tennis balls at the greatest player in the game on Wimbledon's Centre Court.
But when Serena Williams finally shoveled her last forehand into the net, Sharapova crumpled to her knees and buried her face in her hands, scarcely believing that at 17 she had pulled off the most stunning upset in memory at the All England club.
Wimbledon's tennis cognoscenti started this rain-soaked fortnight smitten with the Russian teenager's looks, but they ended it with a standing ovation for her athletic ability and grit in dethroning the two-time defending champion, 6-1, 6-4.
As camera flashes sparkled and cheers rang out, Sharapova thrust her arms to the heavens and trotted toward the net to exchange an embrace with Williams. Then she headed straight for the stands, scampered up a dozen rows and wriggled down a crowded aisle to her jubilant father, Yuri, who cradled his daughter's face in his hands and smothered it with kisses.
The Duke of Kent waited on the court below to crown Wimbledon's new queen, but Sharapova called next for a cell phone and tried in vain to reach her mother, who watching aboard an airplane bound from Florida to New York. The connection kept breaking off, so she settled for thanking her parents over Centre Court's loudspeakers. "I owe you everything," she said into a microphone.
Sharapova's Wimbledon victory marked the end of a remarkable journey -- one of the rare ones in sports that begins with a gifted child and devoted parents, entails years of sacrifice and ends in glory, fame and riches.
It also marked the first time since 1999 that a Williams had not won Wimbledon's championship, with sisters Venus and Serena swapping possession of the title the last four years. Knee and abdomen injuries had left both vulnerable this year, but not even the keenest analyst predicted the 13th-seeded Sharapova, who hasn't yet finished high school, would be the one to snap their streak.
As journalists debated the magnitude of Sharapova's upset -- was it bigger than Evonne Goolagong's 1971 defeat of Margaret Court or as shocking as the 17-year-old Boris Becker's victory over Kevin Curren in 1985? -- it became clear that there was no antecedent for this day. Saturday's championship saw the emergence of an entirely new star: a lithe, long-limbed, teenage beauty with a will of iron and an arsenal of shots that completely dismantled the seemingly invincible Williams.
While Sharapova giggled in disbelief that she'd be attending Wimbledon's annual Champions Ball Sunday night, Williams vowed to return to the practice court at once. Asked what she would work on, she replied, "My serve, my return, my volleys, my forehand and my backhand."
Sharapova's improbable journey began in the western Siberian town of Nygan. She was 2 when her family fled, fearing the fallout from the nuclear accident at Chernobyl. Nine-time Wimbledon champion Martina Navratilova spotted her potential at age 5 during a tennis exhibition with thousands of Russians in Moscow and told her father that his hard-hitting child had a future.
Banking on faith that she'd become a champion, Yuri Sharapov put the family's $700 savings in his pocket, took his daughter's hand and moved to south Florida when she was just 7. Unable to get a visa, Sharapova's mother was forced to stay behind for two years.
Sharapova was admitted to the prestigious Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton at age 9, her fee covered by the Cleveland-based sports agency IMG, which now represents her and recently signed her to a modeling contract as well. While her father worked, she lived in the academy's dorm, ostracized and ignored by boarders who were several years older.
"They have totally different interests; they do totally different things," Sharapova recalled Saturday. "I mean, my bedtime was four hours earlier than theirs was."
But Sharapova was no more intimidated by the older tennis prodigies at the time than she was by Williams on Saturday afternoon.
She broke Williams's powerful serve to bolt to a 3-1 lead in the first set and refused to be cowed by her opponent's punishing groundstrokes and glaring stares. Williams tried yanking Sharapova out of position, but Sharapova unfurled her 6-foot frame and ripped back balls at even nastier angles. Time and again she played backboard to Williams's best strokes, forcing her impatient opponent into unforced errors.
Sharapova closed the first set 6-1 on yet another Williams error -- a backhand plowed into the net. Williams tried varying the pace of her strokes in the second set and took a 4-2 lead.
But Sharapova broke back at once and reeled off the last three games to win the match, becoming Wimbledon's third youngest female champion (behind Charlotte Dod in 1887 and Martina Hingis in 1997) in history.
Only then did her stone-faced expression change and the teenager's giggles return.
"To tell you the truth, I don't know what happened in the match," Sharapova said with a high-pitched laugh afterward. "I don't know how I won. I don't know what the tactics were. I was just playing. I was in my own little world."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company