Australian Open: Maria Sharapova Menaces Her Way to Grand Slam Title

Neil A. HickeyCorrespondent IJanuary 25, 2008

The hard nose that Maria Sharapova developed when she was sent from Siberia to Florida as a seven-year-old to train under Nick Bollettieri has been on display for all to see at this year’s Australian Open.

Coming back from shoulder and leg injuries that hampered her in 2007, the Russian glamour girl was on a mission from the first round, menacing her opponents with an anger, brutality and efficiency that suggested this tournament was always going to be hers.

And so it is.

The 20-year-old is the Australian Open champion for 2008 after she turned to her angry, brutal and efficient best to up-end Serbian Ana Ivanovic 7-5, 6-3.

When Sharapova—who didn’t drop a set all tournament—took the title on her third match point it was welcomed by only polite applause from a crowd and a tennis public that is yet to warm to her.

The tall Russian has been a sullen figure these two weeks, gracing the court with all the charm and joie de vivre of an arthritic undertaker.

Her public relations nightmare worsened after her quarter final win over world number one Justine Henin when her boorish father Yuri Sharapov—a card carrying member of the Overbearing Fathers of Professional Tennis Players Club—was seen performing a throat-slitting gesture at the match’s conclusion.

“You guys will find fault in everything,” Sharapova later told reporters in a tone that indicated she could care less.

Not that winning hearts and minds is more important that winning games, but if Sharapova ever does decide to go down that road—a transformation Andre Agassi was able to achieve—she could do worse than follow the example set by Ivanovic.

The stunning Serb has been a delight all tournament, smiling and laughing her way through interviews and writing a daily column in a Melbourne broadsheet newspaper that has been both entertaining and illuminating.

No one for a second thinks it is actually her who is slaving over a laptop to make deadline, but the gesture is nonetheless one of someone who not only sees herself as a player but also as an ambassador for her sport and country.

Aussie crowds always adopt a favorite daughter at this event—as much a result of the parlous state of local women’s tennis as it is their love of a winner—and Ivanovic warmed to the role in this southern Australian city, home to not only her trainer but her extended family as well.

A Grand Slam title—and maybe a post-tennis career in modeling—is definitely in her future but today she was outclassed by an opponent seemingly bent on avenging last year’s final when she was thrashed by Serena Williams.

Although only seven months separate the two players, Ivonovic lacks Sharapova’s experiences as shown by her 33 unforced errors to Sharapova’s 15.

The Russian beauty won Wimbledon at 17 in 2004 and added the US Open title two years later.

Today’s match was just Ivanovic’s second Grand Slam final and her first on a hard court.

She is a talent for sure but needs to improve her mobility, volleying and develop a backhand slice to complete her game.

On the other hand, Sharapova, who won her first 16 points on serve today and was broken just once, is the finished product and stands a good chance of adding a fourth slam before the year is out.

Her off-court game, though, needs a hell of a lot of work.