2004: Russian invasion begins with Maria Sharapova’s Wimbledon triumph

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The 17-year-old's shocking win over Serena Williams on Centre Court was a sign of things to come for Russian tennis. (AP)

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On the second Saturday of Wimbledon in 2002, the tennis media watched Serena Williams beat her sister Venus for her first title on Centre Court. A day later, after Lleyton Hewitt had made short work of David Nalbandian in the men’s final, a few of us wandered out to the quiet side courts at the All England Club to watch the latest junior sensation try to win her own maiden championship there. But those side courts didn’t turn out to be so quiet. That’s because Maria Sharapova, a 15-year-old Russian via Bradenton, Florida, was running around on them. A wispy blur of long blond hair in a demure white dress, Sharapova screamed her way through most of her shots, and hummed her way through the others. Yet while she was the object of much teen-boy attention that day, Sharapova ended up the loser, in three sets, to her countrywoman Vera Dushevina.

If you had told me that, two years later, this wispy blur of blond would march into Centre Court and run over Serena for the women’s title, I would have shaken my head and laughed. And in fact, when this fantastical result came to pass in 2004, that’s exactly what I did—what else could anyone do? The 17-year-old Sharapova’s 6-1, 6-4 win over Williams, who had won five of the previous nine majors, appeared at the time to be the most unlikely of victories. After what has transpired between those two players in the 11 years since, Sharapova’s lone Wimbledon title only seems more incredible today. Even Maria has to agree.

“I don’t look back at the final very often,” Sharapova told the Daily Telegraph in 2014, on the 10th anniversary of her triumph, “but when I do, I still sometimes feel like, ‘Oh, that moment actually happened.’ It was so inspiring and it was so unexpected in so many ways, at that age and from anyone around me.”

Sharapova came in as the 13th seed, and while she had reached the quarterfinals at the French Open the previous month, and the fourth round at Wimbledon as a 16-year-old rookie the year before, she had little expectation that she could go all the way so soon. Just making the semis was enough, in her eyes.

When Sharapova quickly fell behind 1999 champion Lindsay Davenport a set and a break, it seemed that the semis would have to do. Then a rain delay forced the players off court for an hour, time that the teenager spent flipping through a British gossip magazine.

“I was down and out,” Sharapova told the Telegraph, “but I was a happy girl. I was in the semis for the first time...I was happy to be booking a flight home late in the second week of Wimbledon.”

On her way back out to the court, though, Sharapova ran into her father, Yuri. He wasn’t satisfied with a semifinal defeat, and he assured her that she would come back to beat Davenport. That’s how it played out: Sharapova squeaked through the second set 7-5 before picking up steam and winning the third 6-1. 

She never slowed down. Taking bloodthirsty cuts at the ball, Sharapova stunned a sluggish Serena with her blistering pace and won the first set, 6-1, in just 26 minutes. Serena, at full attention now, battled back in the second, but she was only delaying the inevitable. When Sharapova won a break point to make it 5-4, the momentum was hers again. So, a few minutes later, was the first of her five Grand Slam titles. 

“I just remember being on the ground and looking at the box and shaking my head and saying, ‘Did this really happen?’” Sharapova remembered of the swan-like celebration that has since become her Slam-winning signature.

The win, in the eyes of Sports Illustrated, was cover worthy, a rarity for tennis; “A Star is Born” the magazine declared later that week. The editors were right: Sharapova would go on to become No. 1 and win all of the majors at least once; 11 years later, she’s still in the Top 4. But she hadn’t vanquished Serena. Since her stunner in ’04, Sharapova has beaten her nemesis just once in 18 attempts, and she has only been back to the Wimbledon final one time, in 2011.

But her win in ’04 did more than add another star to the tennis firmament. Sharapova was part of a new generation of Soviet-bloc champions who came of age after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. In 2004, her fellow Russians Anastasia Myskina and Svetlana Kuznetsova won the French and U.S. Opens, respectively. Unlike past champions from Eastern Europe, like Martina Navratilova and Ivan Lendl, Sharapova was never forced to defect to the United States; she and her father moved to Florida from Sochi when she was 7, and like all of her contemporaries, she has maintained her Russian citizenship. 

A decade later, five of the Top 10 women are either from Eastern Europe or have parents who were born there. In 2004, Sharapova’s borderless identity was a sign of 21st century globalization in tennis, and her win at Wimbledon was the most visible representation of the jolt that the sport has been given from its Eastern flank.

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