Sharapova defeats Serena in WTA Tour Championship final
By Paul Levine SportsTicker Contributing Writer
LOS ANGELES - At just 17, Russian phenom Maria Sharapova has come of age.
Sharapova ran off the final six games of the match for a dramatic 4-6, 6-2, 6-4 victory over an injured Serena Williams on Monday night to capture the season-ending $3 million WTA Tour Championships.
"It's been an amazing week, it's been an amazing year," said Sharapova, who began 2004 at No. 32 but ends the year with five titles and a career-best No. 4 ranking. "This has been an extraordinary experience for me. I finished it off and I'm so happy."
Sharapova beat Williams for the second time this year in a scintillating rematch of the Wimbledon final in July in which the Russian sensation stunned the two-time champion.
Before winning the memorable 1-hour, 46-minute match in front of a pro-Williams crowd of 11,397 at Staples Center, Sharapova became the first Russian to reach the finals of the WTA Tour Championships.
In addition to Williams, Sharapova defeated French Open champion Anastasia Myskina, U.S. Open titleholder Svetlana Kuznetsova and world No. 2 Amelie Mauresmo of France in becoming the second player to win the tournament in her first appearance. It also secured the record-tying $1 million first-place prize.
"I don't think I could have asked for anything better this year to finish it off for me by beating players that are the best in the world," said Sharapova, who joined Williams as winners in their debut here.
"I know I'm not showing a lot of emotion, but I'm speechless. It's quite an amazing year, I've accomplished so much. I've been through ups and downs in my life. And to achieve so much at 17 years old. A lot of people don't realize I'm still 17."
Ironically, Williams finishes the year in the same fashion she began it. After undergoing knee surgery in August of 2003, she did not return to action until late March. She won two titles but failed to capture a Grand Slam event for the first time since 2001.
"It is extremely disappointing," said Williams, who finished with a 40-8 record. "I figured I would have a good chance at this title, but there is nothing I can do about it."
Off to her best start in the round-robin tournament, Williams grabbed the opening set. However, Sharapova showed poise and took the second set, utilizing powerful ground strokes.
Williams, who won here in 2001, claimed to have injured herself at the outset. The pain became excruciating after dropping her serve in the final game of the second set and she called for the trainer, who examined her for a strained abdomen.
After a break, Williams had her midsection taped at courtside. Meanwhile, Sharapova took the time to work on her serves.
"It's definitely a muscle pull or a strain or a tear, unfortunately," said Williams, who is expected to have an MRI on Tuesday to determine the severity of the injury. "I actually noticed it in the first game of the match. I felt something in my stomach and thought it was just a stitch, but it wouldn't go away. Whenever I would serve or made a muscle in my stomach, I felt the pain. In a zero to a 10, it was like a 10 pain-wise."
Williams remained dangerous, despite being unable to serve effectively.
"I wasn't going to go for any big serves, it's not worth it," she said. "With the new year coming around the corner, I just thought, 'Oh my God, it's not worth it to me.'"
The six-time Grand Slam winner raced out to a 4-0 lead before the injury got the best of her. Hitting soft serves averaging in the high 70s, Williams tried to get by with guts and courage.
"I was actually really surprised. I didn't think I would be able to stay out there," she said. "I just started blasting every ball as hard as I could. I think I lived off her mistakes. I don't how I was able to stay out there. Once she stopped making them, she was able to come back and win the match."
Despite attempting to play through the pain, Williams could not hold the lead as Sharapova regrouped and began to tee off on her soft deliveries.
"I think she figured she can't do anything from her serve, so she ought to hit everything as hard as she could," Sharapova said. "That's exactly what she did. Everything was going in and there was not too much I could do.
"I couldn't capitalize on the weak serve, so I just tried to find a little opening and get back in there. I guess I was mentally strong. I figured if I could hold my serve, then I knew I would get a chance on her serve."
Sharapova proved correct as she knotted the set at 4-4 when Williams double-faulted a 68 miles-per-hour second serve on break point.
After holding serve at love, Sharapova led 15-40 before hammering an up-the-line forehand service return winner on match point and fell to the court in disbelief.
"It was a relief," she said. "I mean, you can't believe it. It is really unbelievable. ... It just shows that I have come a long way in a short period of time."
This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index