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Sharapova returns in time

Russian teen regains focus after quick trip to 'La-La Land'

Posted: Wednesday, September 01, 2004

NEW YORK Maria Sharapova nearly found out just how quickly one can go from diva to disaster.

No reigning Wimbledon women's champion has lost in the first round of the U.S. Open, and Sharapova was just one game from that fate. Then she steeled herself to claim 12 of the last 14 points and got past Laura Granville 6-3, 5-7, 7-5 Tuesday night.

''My game went off for a while. I went to La-La Land,'' the 17-year-old Siberian-turned-Floridian said, ''but I came back to Earth.''

She wasn't the only top player pushed to the limit on Day 2 at Flushing Meadows: 2000 Open winner Marat Safin and 11th-seeded Rainer Schuettler lost, while 2003 runner-up Juan Carlos Ferrero and No. 5 Tim Henman both needed five sets to advance.

Safin, Schuettler and Ferrero were put in the same quarter of the draw as 2003 champion Andy Roddick, who followed Sharapova in Arthur Ashe Stadium and broke the tournament record with a 152 mph serve during a 6-0, 6-2, 6-2 victory over 17-year-old Scoville Jenkins.

One indication of how players slide from star to afterthought: While Sharapova was on the National Tennis Center's main stage, 2000-01 Open champ Venus Williams was in the last day-session match on another court.

Made to wait until after 8:30 p.m. to play, because she was scheduled to hit the court after Henman and Ferrero, Williams was broken while serving for the match but eventually pulled out a 6-3, 7-6 (3) win over 64th-ranked Petra Mandula of Hungary.

''What I need to focus on for me right now is the second round,'' said Williams, seeded No. 11 after a year of injuries and earlier-than-usual losses at majors. ''I'm not really thinking ahead too far.''

After cruising through the first set against 68th-ranked Granville of Chicago before a subdued crowd, Sharapova was suddenly in trouble late in the second. Down 6-5, Sharapova faced her first break point of the match, which she saved with a 101 mph service winner on a second serve. But she double-faulted to grant Granville another break point, then slapped a forehand into the net.

Granville never beyond the second round at the Open was within a game of a serious surprise, ahead 5-4 in the third set. That's when Sharapova took over, holding at 15, breaking at love with a superb cross-court backhand winner, then holding again at 15.

All the while, the photographers in their courtside pit trained their equipment on the 6-foot Sharapova, who's represented by a modeling agency. Most of the time, about 40 cameras followed her, and one or two followed Granville.

''Wimbledon was an amazing thing, winning it, but now I have to sort of move on,'' said Sharapova, who came to the Open just 3-3 since becoming the third-youngest champion in 127 years at the All England Club. ''You're sort of a celebrity, and people want a piece of you.''

When she hit her 10th ace, followed by a service winner, to end it, her sunglasses-wearing father jumped and pounded his fist on his chest. Sharapova mimicked that gesture, then just as she did after stunning Serena Williams in Wimbledon's final in July went to grab her phone to call Mom.

''It's all about the spirit,'' Sharapova said after her 2-hour, 9-minute adventure. ''Hanging in there, and trying to do your best.''

Safin might want to take a note or two.

Late in his 7-6 (5), 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 loss to 59th-ranked Tomas Enqvist, Safin grabbed his racket with both hands, leaned forward, and cracked it to the court three times.

It was a brief show of anger, a tiny indication that he cared whether or not he lost in the first round of the Slam he won four years ago. Neither his play nor his words lent much insight.

Just like at Wimbledon, Safin exited at the earliest stage.

''Believe me, I'm trying,'' Safin said, a grin creeping across his face. ''If I would lie to myself, I would say it's Thomas' fault. But I don't want to lie to myself. A huge part of it is my fault, because I let him play well.''

The 13th-seeded Russian was broken twice while serving for the first set, waved lazily at shots down the stretch and kept his usual muttering to a minimum.

Compare that effort to Henman's. His poorest Slam results have come at the Open, so he can't call on past success to help, the way Safin could if he wanted.

But battling a bad back that kept him off the practice courts for three days, Henman withstood 6-foot-10 Ivo Karlovic's 39 aces and toughed it out for more than 3 1/2 hours in a 7-6 (3), 6-7 (7), 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 victory. Ferrero had an even longer day, playing 4 1/2 hours to cobble together a 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (6), 6-7 (4), 6-3 win over Tomas Zib, a Czech qualifier who's never won a Grand Slam match.

''I wasn't going to get frustrated if he was going to serve aces or stuff, because it saved me doing the running,'' Henman said. ''I felt like I kept my head about me pretty well throughout the whole match.''

A sentiment Safin isn't ever likely to express, although you never know what he'll come up with. At the French Open, he caused a stir by dropping his shorts to celebrate a terrific point. At Wimbledon, he said he was fed up with trying to win there and took the time to point out that tennis doesn't belong in the Olympics.

He's been fined for all sorts of things, on and off the court: swearing at a chair umpire, berating a tournament sponsor for not replacing the courtesy car he crashed, failing to show enough effort in a first-round loss to a qualifier at the 2000 Australian Open.



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