Maria Magic In New York
FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY, USA - Since taking the women's tennis world by storm two summers ago with a scintillating run to the Wimbledon title, she climbed the rankings, won several Sony Ericsson WTA Tour titles and became her own brand. But she was a perennial semifinalist at the majors, a trend that evoked doubt as to whether or not she would ever reach that pinnacle again. Then, on a magical Saturday night in New York, the nay-sayers were finally put to rest; with a resounding, straight set championship win over Justine Henin-Hardenne, Maria Sharapova captured the 2006 US Open.
As she has done at all majors in the last two seasons (with the exception of Roland Garros), Sharapova lived up to her Top 4 seeding relatively easily during the Flushing fortnight, her biggest hurdles prior to the semifinals coming against China's Li Na and France's Tatiana Golovin in the fourth round and quarterfinals, respectively. The No.3 seed still managed to defeat them both in straight sets.
The Russian's Grand Slam renaissance began in the semifinals. Staring down an 0-3 head-to-head against Amélie Mauresmo (the reigning Australian Open and Wimbledon champion, as well as the world's No.1), Sharapova came out firing, taking the opening set at love. After allowing the second set to go her opponent's way, she conjured up her best form again, cruising to a 60 46 60 victory.
Then there was the triumph over Henin-Hardenne, who, like Mauresmo, had been one of her nemeses over the last few years. She had lost their last four meetings, and things seemed headed the same way early on as Henin-Hardenne jumped out, 2-0. But Sharapova played her way back into the set, eventually breaking serve again in the ninth game before serving it out in the 10th. The two women held tightly to their serve in the second set, but again it was Sharapova who came through with a break in the seventh game, holding serve the rest of the way en route to the 64 64 victory over the world's No.2-ranked player.
"Coming into the match, I felt pretty relaxed," Sharapova said. "Although I lost the first two games, I didn't worry about it. I was pretty positive about the whole thing. I was excited to be in the final of a Grand Slam, and thought I would enjoy the opportunity, the moment of it, keep fighting until the end. That's what I did."
"She was brave tonight, more than me; that made a big difference," said Henin-Hardenne, who was seeking another major to add to her previous five. "I tried to keep fighting every point but she was just better tonight. Second place is always the most difficult. It's not a nice feeling but I will have time to think about this."
After one last Henin-Hardenne forehand error on match point, Sharapova fell to the ground in celebration of her second career Grand Slam title.
"When you go down on the ground, you just think of everything you've put into this moment, and even though the moment is a very short time, when you get to be on court with that trophy, it's just so incredible," said Sharapova, who became just the eighth woman in history to defeat the world's Top 2 at the same major. "This was a new opportunity and the final of a Grand Slam. So the last thing I was worrying about was the last four times that I lost to her. I didn't worry about what happened in my semifinal when I beat Amélie, either. I was just in a zone."
Sharapova attributed some of her heightened confidence level to various things, but most notably some off-court work she had done during the summer season. Her movement was exceptional all fortnight long.
"After Wimbledon I took a week off, came back to Los Angeles and worked with a fitness coach for seven days. I probably spent two or three hours a day doing fitness, an hour or so hitting the ball. The week after that, I started playing more tennis. I played twice a day. I played some matches. Did a bit of fitness, just alone, did some things that I took from the week before.
"I went to San Diego and I moved better than I've moved in my career."
Henin-Hardenne, whose movement is among the best in the game, can take away several positives from the past fortnight, including the fact that she was just the seventh player in the Open Era to reach the finals at all four majors in a season.
"I had a good couple of weeks. Unfortunately it ends in a way I don't like; but it's been great season for me, and it's not over yet. I couldn't have expected these results. I've been pretty consistent for the whole year. The thing is that I'm still healthy, and I hope I can play a few more tournaments, then the Championships.
"I was saying 2006 would be a year of transition. It's the first year since 2003 I've played a whole season. At the end, I'll make conclusions and see what my plans will be for next year."
Sharapova and Henin-Hardenne were not the only singles standouts at the 2006 US Open. Mauresmo enjoyed an impressive run, overcoming a lopsided head-to-head in beating Serena Williams in the round of 16 before losing to Sharapova in the semifinals. Jelena Jankovic continued to turn her season around in a big way by reaching her career-first Grand Slam semifinal, upsetting three Top 10 players before losing a heartbreaker to Henin-Hardenne. There was also a solid run from one of the sport's all-time greats, Lindsay Davenport; the American fended off match points in the third round and Patty Schnyder in the fourth round before falling to Henin-Hardenne for the seventh straight time in the quarterfinals.
But the fortnight belonged to Sharapova, who pulled off one of her biggest wins in front of a prime time crowd. And she sees even prettier things coming her way.
"I'm thrilled that I got to experience another Grand Slam win. There's nothing like winning your first major, but to win your second is the cherry on the cake. There are a lot more cherries that I'm gonna put on that cake so I'm looking forward to having them."