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Radwanska does it her way

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- Over the years, neighboring dictators have exerted a significant influence down here in South Florida. Which would lead you to believe that Maria Sharapova would be enormously successful at the Sony Ericsson Open.

No one these days in women's tennis dictates policy like the uber-aggressive Sharapova. The match is always in her court, so to speak.

In Saturday's hot and hazy final, Sharapova's shots were consistently deeper, flatter and far faster than Agnieszka Radwanska's -- but not always more accurate. Like all strong-armed despots, Sharapova has learned that she will live -- and die -- by the sword of her forceful groundstrokes.

On this day, going for it turned out to be a fatal flaw.

Radwanska, the counterpuncher, took down the knockout artist 7-5, 6-4. It was the most prestigious title in her seven years as a professional.

"I thought she played extremely well today, was very consistent, got that extra ball back and I made that extra mistake," Sharapova said, finger on the pulse. "She didn't give me many errors. When I had my chances at break point, I didn't take them. When she had them, she did."

Radwanska spent most of the match running from side to side, throwing up defensive squash shots and all manner of slices, plus a few spectacular sit-and-grips when she basically prevented her head from getting torn off. The world loves a winner, but that's not how the 23-year-old from Poland worked her way up to No. 4 among WTA players.

"I went on court, I'm playing against a really good player, top player, second in the world right now," Radwanska said. "Pretty much nothing to lose. It's just a great feeling to beat those kind of players, especially in the final."

In the first set, according to the statistical analysis, she had exactly one winner, compared to 16 for Sharapova. Yet Radwanska -- with a wimpy serve that CBS analyst Mary Carillo called "junior-ish, but sneaky," won four more points. How was this possible? Because of the unforced errors that inevitably come with all that firepower.

Sharapova finished the match with 45 unforced errors, to more than mitigate her 31 winners. Radwanska was far more efficient, with 10 unforced errors and six winners.

Hard to believe that Radwanska had lost seven of their eight career matches coming in.

Sharapova's greatest lapse was not doing more with Radwanska's second serve.

"I definitely didn't return well," she said. "I wasn't aggressive on that shot. When I did have second serve opportunities, she's serving at 70 miles per hour and I'm not winning those points. There's something wrong with that."

This will be a difficult result for Sharapova to live with.

The woman who beat her in the finals of the Australian Open and Indian Wells, No. 1-ranked Victoria Azarenka, already had been surgically removed from the tournament by Marion Bartoli, and the path to the title was relatively clear. No Serena or Venus Williams or Kim Clijsters either, for that matter.

Although Sharapova has come a great distance in her three years since serious shoulder surgery, every time you think she's going to make the final leap she comes up short. The serve that has been chronically inconsistent was just fine. But, more troubling, there were times Saturday when it appeared she lost her nerve.

Serving to reach a first-set tiebreaker, Sharapova made two huge mistakes. The first was an easy forehand into the open court, which sailed wide. The second was a massive swinging forehand inside the service box (with Radwanska on the run) that found the net. That made it love-40 and Radwanska ultimately converted her third set point.

Afterward, Sharapova seemed to regret not taking a little something off her fastball.

"The few errors on important points that I made I thought were, you know, maybe I shouldn't have gone for the line so much," she said, "aimed a little bit closer to the middle."

So Sharapova finishes the first three months of the season 0-for-3 in the finals of the three biggest tournaments. Is the glass half empty -- or half full? We'll go with half full. She's proved that she's the second-best player after Azarenka. And that counts for something.