In defeat, Sharapova vows she'll return

WIMBLEDON, England – As a stunning and sometimes majestic semifinal match gasped toward its conclusion, Maria Sharapova was not interested in making any fashion statement.

As Venus Williams kept pounding away relentlessly, coming closer to dethroning the Teen Queen of Wimbledon, Sharapova was not concerned with whether her 24-karat-gold–trimmed sneakers sparkled in the damp dusk on Centre Court. All she wanted was to find fire in her racket, to burn a little brighter in the amazingly physical rallies, to somehow defuse or out-blast the heavy artillery Williams was firing so resolutely. Sharapova desperately wanted to make a tennis statement.

She was beaten 7-6 (2), 6-1 Thursday by the sort of inspired assault that few thought the elder Williams star still had in her, but the regal Russian showed that along with glamorous style, she has gritty substance. Beyond the beauty, she has the guts and heart of a champion. Sharapova did not give up her crown, she made Williams wrest it from her with both hands. Make no mistake about it, the perfume line Sharapova is most interested in pursuing is the sweet scent of winning.

Yes, she did show vulnerability under the onslaught. She couldn't quite measure up to the consistent power of Williams' serve. She made errors, but most of them were forced – or the result of trying to go for too ambitious a shot because she sensed, correctly, that only bold-bordering-on-reckless hitting would be good enough to win this day.

The pace of the shot making was withering, the mounting pressure palpable, the standard of play frequently sublime. Both players were putting so much effort into covering the court, sprinting to retrieve apparent winners, lunging and slugging with a no-guts-no-glory attitude, that the sound track of the match was almost chilling. If you closed your eyes for a moment and listened to the grunts and squeals of exertion, you would have thought this was a torture chamber. Then you opened your eyes and saw that, no, it was a very special caliber of extreme tennis.

Sharapova fought back from 5-2 down (one service break) to force a tiebreaker in the first set. She battled so valiantly in the second set that the 6-1 score is deceptive. At least four times in the match, Sharapova tried so hard to run down Williams haymakers that she lunged for the ball with the racket in her left hand. She did not go quietly or easily.

When it was over, she came into the post-match interview room wearing a white track suit, a baseball cap – albeit a very elegant one – pulled far down over her golden tresses. She did not look like a fashion diva, a supermodel, but rather like a tennis player. She was gracious in defeat, but with an undertone of defiance that left no doubt she will be back – stronger, more tactically flexible and determined to reign again at Wimbledon.

Someone asked whether she was able to enjoy the scintillating standard of the match. Her response was revealing.

"Oh, yeah, of course. When I came off the court, I knew the quality was good," Sharapova said. "But you also know that you lost the match, so it's hard to think that way."

She probably played better than she did in beating Serena Williams, Venus' younger sister, 6-1, 6-4 in last year's final.

"It was a totally different match," Sharapova said. "I think the level of tennis was a lot higher today from both of us."

She brushed aside a question as to whether Venus was driven to avenge her sister's defeat last year and reassert the Williams flag at Wimbledon, where Venus won in 2000 and '01 and Serena in 2002 and '03.

"I don't think it has anything to do with family or anything like that," Sharapova said. "It was Venus out there. It wasn't Serena. I just played against a really good opponent. I thought we played a really good match. Today, it went to the better person."

Sharapova was clearly disappointed that she didn't have the necessary answers on the court, but she knew that was because Williams was posing impossibly tough questions.

"I don't think I played my best tennis," Sharapova said. "But credit to her for making me play not my best. She had a lot of hard, deep balls. She was serving consistently big. I don't have as big a serve as her."

That, she promised, will change.

"I think I need to be stronger," Sharapova said. "The stronger I get, the bigger my serve will be, the easier it will be for me to maybe hold serve and get more free points. But at 18, I don't think it's possible to have a huge, consistent serve, and I realize that and accept it. I know with hard work and repetition, it will get bigger and stronger and more accurate."

Her demeanor was composed, though understandably subdued. Defeat had temporarily dimmed her usual radiance. She got a little misty-eyed, and the traces of a sob found their way to her throat, when she was asked how she felt at losing the title she cherishes most.

"I'm obviously very sad," she said. "This tournament means a lot to me – more than any other tournament. I guess there's many more years to come. It's just one of those things where you want to win, you know, but you can't."

It was unmistakable then that no matter how much she likes the glitter, the commercials, the elegant dresses and photo shoots and other trappings of superstardom and the mega-celebrity good life, what Maria Sharapova loves most of all is winning tennis matches and major championships. She wants to be the defending champion at Wimbledon – not once, but many times.

The Ladies' Champion Trophy is a gilt-edged silver salver, an ornate plate with classical and mythological references, that coincidentally is also known as the "Venus Rosewater Dish." You can already sense how eager Sharapova will be to make it the "Maria Rosewater Dish" again next year. Forget about fashion statements and gold-accented shoes, she wants to make a tennis statement, and punctuate it by holding aloft that very special, one-of-a-kind sterling silver plate edged in gold.

Barry Lorge, former Washington Post staff writer and sports editor/columnist of The San Diego Union, has covered tennis in more than 25 countries on five continents. He co-authored the section on tennis in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.