Sharapova’s comeback continues with Australian Open title
MELBOURNE: Nothing could stop Maria Sharapova at the Australian Open this year. Not her usual nemesis, Serena Williams, who was beaten by someone else in the quarterfinals. Not her fragile right shoulder, which remained loose and pain free. Not the summer heat during Saturday’s final, and not her opponent, Ana Ivanovic, who pushed the powerful, deeply motivated Sharapova harder than anyone else in this Grand Slam tournament, but still could not manage to win a set.
Sharapova’s 7-5, 6-3 victory gave her a third Grand Slam singles title to go with those she won at Wimbledon in 2004 and the U.S. Open in 2006. But this victory had a different flavor for Sharapova than the others, largely because it came after a frustrating period in her career in which her shoulder problems and self-doubt knocked her out of the No. 1 spot.
She failed to advance past the fourth round at either Wimbledon or the U.S. Open and finished the year ranked fifth, great news for some young tennis players but not for a diva who despite all the millions she makes off the court remains, at heart, a ferocious competitor.
She was beaten in the semifinals here in 2005 by Williams after holding three match points. She was overwhelmed by Williams in the final last year. But Sharapova’s appetite for the title was palpable from start to finish at this Grand Slam, which required her to hit and think her way through a difficult draw that included two former Australian Open champions in Lindsay Davenport and Justine Henin and two other opponents who had reached Grand Slam singles finals.
Serving well and moving very well, she was never even pushed to a tiebreaker, and though Sharapova will remain No. 5 in the world in Monday’s new rankings, nobody who saw her performance here would put much stock in that number.
“If somebody had told me in the middle of last year, I’d be standing on this stage in front of all you guys with the big one, I’d probably say, ‘Forget it,’ ” Sharapova said in her poised, wide-ranging speech to the crowd in Rod Laver Arena.
Sharapova, 20, dedicated her victory to the mother of her coach Michael Joyce, Jane Joyce, who died last year of cancer. “Every single day, every time when we went on the court, Jane was the word that came into our minds,” she said. “I just gained a whole new perspective on life and my injuries and how to treat life with respect.”
“This morning I got a text from Billie Jean King saying, ‘Champions take chances’ and ‘Pressure is a privilege,’ ” Sharapova said. “And I think as an athlete that’s what Ana and I and everyone who plays wants to achieve. We all want to take our chances, and I’m just so fortunate I took mine today.”
Ivanovic, who is the same age as Sharapova, is still waiting for her first major trophy. Although she delivered a more poised performance than the one she produced in last year’s lopsided defeat in the French Open final by Henin, she was still too erratic to mount a serious challenge to Sharapova. Ivanovic finished with 33 unforced errors and only 14 winners and later broke down in tears as she spoke to the crowd, which had tilted her way during the match.
Sharapova, seeded fifth, and Ivanovic, seeded fourth, had split their previous four matches, but had never faced each other in a final, much less a Grand Slam final. Each player, as she normally does, came out swinging with gusto. For Ivanovic, who has often looked tight on big occasions in the past, it looked like a tactical move to help her work through her nerves. But Sharapova did a better job of controlling her power in the early stages.
She broke Ivanovic in the fifth game and swept through her own first three service games without losing a point. At that stage, it was easy to imagine this match accelerating toward a finish that had the resurgent Sharapova holding up the trophy after little more than an hour.
But with Sharapova serving at 4-3, the momentum abruptly shifted. Sharapova played her worst service game of the tournament, serving three double faults, two of them on the final two points of the game. It was Ivanovic’s turn to ride the wave, but with a 5-4 lead and with Sharapova down, 15-30, on her serve, Ivanovic decided to hit a backhand drop shot instead of capitalizing on her fine court position to slug a ground stroke. The ball never came close to clearing the net, and Sharapova evened the score at 5-5 before breaking Ivanovic’s serve in the next game as her forehand kept breaking down under Sharapova’s shriek-infused pressure.
“That was a tough moment, two points from losing the first set, but I just kept going,” Sharapova said.
Ivanovic held firm early in the second set, but she still had to fight much harder to hold her serve than Sharapova did to hold hers. Sharapova finally broke her again in the seventh game, getting some help from an Ivanovic double fault at 30-30. It would not be long before she dropped to her knees in delight as her father, Yuri Sharapov, and Joyce embraced in the stands.