<
>

Sharapova drops Henin-Hardenne to win U.S. Open title

NEW YORK -- Maria Sharapova insists she's more about
substance than style, and now she has a second Grand Slam title to
prove it.

Her strokes as piercing as her shrieks by the end, the
third-seeded Sharapova beat No. 2 Justine Henin-Hardenne 6-4, 6-4
Saturday night to win the U.S. Open final, the 11th straight year the women's final has ended in straight sets.

"This is an amazing honor," Sharapova said. "I'm so happy
that it's here in New York, my favorite city in the world, in front
of the best fans."

Sharapova burst onto the tennis -- and endorsement -- scene by
winning Wimbledon in 2004 at age 17. She'd come close to adding
more major championships since but went 0-5 in Slam semifinals --
until this tournament.

When Henin-Hardenne, a finalist at all four majors this year,
slapped one last forehand into the net, Sharapova dropped to her
knees and covered her face, then rose and trotted to shake hands.
Then Sharapova hopped up and down, looking for the first time all
night like any other teen.

She climbed into the stands, losing her way briefly until being
helped by an usher, for hugs with her father and her hitting
partner, who've been sending her signals during matches about when
to drink water or eat bananas.

But Sharapova needed very little help on court against
Henin-Hardenne, a five-time major champion who would have returned
to No. 1 in the rankings with a victory. By facing only one break
point, and overcoming an early lapse, Sharapova wound up dominating
a player with more impressive accomplishments.

Henin-Hardenne entered the night leading the tour in matches won
(54), Grand Slam matches won (25) and tournament titles (five) this
season.

"She's been a real fighter tonight," said the Belgian, who won
the 2003 Open. "The better player won tonight."

In the men's final Sunday, No. 1 Roger Federer will be bidding
for his ninth career Grand Slam title when he takes on No. 9 Andy
Roddick, aiming for his second.

In contrast to Henin-Hardenne, in more traditional tennis attire
topped by a white ballcap, Sharapova wore her night-match getup, a
black, cocktail dress-type number replete with a sparkled collar,
accessorized with silver shoes and dangling earrings. Sharapova
says the look is inspired by "Breakfast at Tiffany's," but the
guess here is Audrey Hepburn never had a sponsor's swoosh on her
outfit.

Sharapova makes about $20 million a year from endorsement deals,
and she signed a "lifetime" contract with her racket maker
shortly before the U.S. Open began.

In the final's second game, a man's voice came from the sellout
crowd of 23,712, screaming the tag line from Sharapova's oft-played
current TV ad: "I feel pretty!"

In the commercial, that tune is sung by various people as
Sharapova walks out onto court for a match. The punch line:
Sharapova swings her racket and lets out one of her trademark
shrieks.

Those high-pitched screams were muted at the start of the match,
but within a few games, Sharapova was wailing as loudly as ever.
Not that Henin-Hardenne was silent, punctuating points won by
letting out, "Allez!"

Sharapova won the coin toss and elected to receive, then went
out and stood right at the baseline while Henin-Hardenne hit
practice serves at the end of the warmup session. Picture Yankees
shortstop Derek Jeter getting to take batting practice against Red
Sox starter Curt Schilling -- it just doesn't happen in other
sports.

Perhaps Sharapova noticed something, because she immediately
earned two break points in the match's opening game. Henin-Hardenne
saved both, then broke for a 2-0 edge with the aid of two
double-faults by Sharapova.

But Sharapova broke right back -- one free point came on a
double-fault -- and in the process came up with the shot of the
evening: a half-volley drop winner to close a 10-stroke exchange.

After her own early loss of serve, Sharapova buckled down in
that regard: She didn't face a break point the rest of the match.

Pretty impressive against a player of Henin-Hardenne's caliber.
The Belgian entered the night leading all women in matches won
(54), Grand Slam matches won (25) and tournament titles (five).

Henin-Hardenne finally succumbed to Sharapova's power and
relentless shotmaking. At 3-3 in the third set came the final, key
break of serve, after Henin-Hardenne led 40-15. She missed two
backhands and double-faulted; after saving one break point, she set
up another by sailing a forehand long. Under pressure from
Sharapova's groundstrokes, Henin-Hardenne dumped a forehand into
the net, making it 4-3. Sharapova yelled "Come on!" and jogged to
the changeover.

"Come on!" from someone born in Siberia? Well, Sharapova has
made her home in Florida since she was 7. After trying to call
someone with her cellphone while waiting for the trophy ceremony,
Sharapova leaned forward in her chair and said, "This is crazy!"

A few moments later came the biggest mistake Sharapova made all
night. She tried hoisting the silver trophy above her head with two
hands -- and the top fell off. She giggled, then composed herself.

In her victory speech, Sharapova paid tribute to Billie Jean
King, the former star player and pioneer for women's tennis. The
USTA National Tennis Center was rededicated in her honor during a
ceremony on the tournament's opening night.

"First and foremost, I would like to thank Billie Jean King for
being such an amazing woman. Without her we would not be standing
here today," Sharapova said. "What she's done for our sport and
what she's done for women is absolutely incredible, and I've looked
up to her since I was a little girl."

In contrast to Henin-Hardenne, in more traditional tennis attire
topped by a white ballcap, Sharapova wore her night-match outfit,
similar to a black cocktail dress, accessorized with silver shoes
and dangling earrings. Sharapova says the look is inspired by
"Breakfast at Tiffany's," but the guess here is Audrey Hepburn
never had a sponsor's swoosh on her outfit.

Sharapova earned $1.7 million with her victory, although she
makes far more from endorsement deals than prize money.

"I've been pretty good in the past balancing my time with my
sponsors with my tennis, because I know my priority," Sharapova
said in an interview two weeks ago. "At the end of the day, what I
love doing is competing, and that's where my heart is at, on center
court."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.