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Sharapova masters tennis, publicity



Published: Thu, June 30, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The teenager was gracious when asked about today's opponent, Venus Williams.

KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWSPAPERS

WIMBLEDON, England -- Maria Sharapova at 18 not only has learned to win a Grand Slam, but she also has mastered the fine art of pre-match publicity as well.

You'll get no edgy comments from her about Venus Williams, before their semifinal today.

"She has a big game. She's a great fighter. So, every time we play we always have a really tough match," Sharapova said, loading up the compliments. "Just have to go out and battle it out and see who can win the fight."

Two matches to go and Sharapova becomes the first teenaged woman to win back-to-back Wimbledons since Maureen Connolly did it back-to-back-to-back in 1952, 1953 and 1954 at 17, 18 and 19.

Sharapova was no overwhelming favorite when this tournament began, after sweating through three split-set matches in winning at Birmingham on June 18.

Strong serve

But everything has congealed for her through the first five rounds and she is now playing measurably better than when she won Wimbledon a year ago. One major reason is the rapid improvement of her serve.

Through five rounds she has been broken only once in 44 service games and takes a run of 27 unbroken games going into the semifinals.

If Pete Sampras, Goran Ivanisevic or Roger Federer had 27 straight service games without a break, it would be considered quite good, but certainly not worth a trip to the record book.

In women's tennis, though the WTA doesn't keep that record, 27 in a row is phenomenal, and it's been accomplished not just because Sharapova has an average 103 mph first serve, but she's in the low 90s on her second as well. In addition, she backs up her serve with an aggressive first ground stroke on which she usually takes control of the point.

Her serve will be tested by Williams, who went through a period of playing safer, less risky shots a few years ago confident that when she got into the rallies she would win the points.

But she's been much more of an attacking service receiver at this Wimbledon and it could influence Sharapova to up the speed on both serves, as she did against 15-year-old, "nothing-to-lose" Sesil Karatantcheva in the second round, when she averaged 105 mph on her first and 94 on her second.

Kind words

Like Sharapova, Williams is not throwing down gauntlets. Her short, simple and deliberately vague assessment of Sharapova: "She definitely strikes the ball well, is a very determined player. Just a good player all-around."

That should be reassuring to Sharapova, the No. 2 player on the WTA Tour.

At 29, No. 1 Lindsay Davenport is less concerned about how her opponents take her pre-match remarks. Asked about Amelie Mauresmo's history of emotional meltdowns and whether that could come into effect, she replied, humorously: "Well, I hope so. I hope that definitely comes into play."

But she was generous as well. "I do believe in her and I do believe she is good enough and strong enough to one day come through these situations."

Then she smiled and added, "I hope it's not Thursday."




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