The building of that something has already become legend: How Yuri Sharapov moved his family from Siberia to the Black Sea resort of Sochi when Maria was two to escape the fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster; how he buttonholed Martina Navratilova at a tournament in Moscow to get advice on where to find the best coaching; how he and the seven-year-old Maria left her mother, Yelena, behind in Russia and moved to Florida with only $700—unknown, uninvited and unsure of even how to find the Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Brandenton. Helped out by her grandparents, who sent money from Russia, Maria played at Bollettieri's as a paying student while Yuri worked a variety of jobs, including cutting holes in the greens at a golf course.
"They don't talk about it much, but the toughness you see? That's what molded her—those two years of not knowing," says Maria's agent, Max Eisenbud. "Just the two of them together, no money: What the hell are we doing here? No one knows what those two years for the two of them were like. But [Yuri] sums it up as survival."
When Nick Bollettieri trotted out the nine-year-old Maria for a workout before officials of IMG, which owns the Bollettieri Academy, "it took five minutes" for them to award her a full scholarship, says IMG agent Gavin Forbes. "I had never seen a young woman with so much desire, so much maturity and focus." At Wimbledon, Yuri refused all interview requests, insisting that the focus stay on Maria. But minutes after Sharapova's victory on Saturday, he burst through a side door off Centre Court and shouted, "We did it! We did it!"
Sharapova did even more than win the title, though. The women's game entered the tournament's final soggy days awash in malaise. After a French Open memorable only for its parade of inert female stars, the crowds at Wimbledon were treated to a numbing procession of one-sided matches. Once again, supporters of men's tennis laughed at the notion of equal prize money for women, and the historic first-round singles win by the 47-year-old Navratilova only underlined the tour's lack of depth. "Eight years she didn't play a match," said Goran Ivanisevic, actually short by two years. "That shows you everything about women's tennis."
Stars such as Jennifer Capriati either whined about media pressure or confessed their own waning interest in the game. Davenport, all but declaring this to be her final Wimbledon because of deteriorating knee cartilage, rolled into the semis for one last hurrah but admitted that she just didn't feel "the same kind of excitement sometimes before matches. The wins don't get me as excited [either]. On the flip side, the losses don't hurt as much."
Williams, meanwhile, reeled off five wins on autopilot. Blame lingering weakness in her surgically repaired left knee; blame lingering grief over the murder of her half-sister Yetunde last September. But any of her sidelines—acting, clothing design, her attempt to look like Beyonc�—have engaged her far more than tennis over the past year. The 2003 Wimbledon was the last Grand Slam event that Yetunde attended, the last Slam at which the entire Williams family was together. Father Richard had come back after recurring absences to coach Serena this year, but it wasn't the same. "Obviously it's difficult when you really think about it," she said, referring to Yetunde's absence, "but I just don't think about it right now."
Suddenly, on Thursday, the pall lifted. It was as if someone had sent an electric charge across the damp grass; Williams, who had dismantled Capriati in straight sets in the quarterfinals, played a mesmerizing semifinal against Am�lie Mauresmo. Early on Mauresmo exposed the holes in Williams's game, particularly her inconsistent forehand, and Williams's limited preparation showed in repeated unforced errors. Ahead 7-6, 2-1, Mauresmo looked like a sure winner. But then, even without her best game, Williams embraced the match as she hadn't any other match since her return to tennis in March. She screamed, threw her racket and finally willed her way past the cowed Mauresmo in three emotional sets. "All I really had was fight," Williams said afterward.
It was good to see, but then came the best thing that could've happened to the women's game: Williams got embarrassed. Sharapova served notice that Serena's half measures won't cut it anymore, and if Williams wants to be on top again, she's going to have to work harder—and get past Sharapova while she's at it. With a laugh, Williams vowed that she would be back on the practice court immediately. Was she serious? No one could tell, and no one checked, because on Sunday, Wimbledon had a few more important matters to attend to. First, Sharapova needed something to wear to the Wimbledon ball. "I just want to know how long her skirt's going to be," Roddick said. "Is it going to be short? Disappointed I won't get to see that. I might just sneak in and crash the party." Second, there was the vital matter of establishing the best rivalry in men's tennis since Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.
For the first time in 22 years the men's No. 1 and No. 2 seeds met in the final at the All-England Club, and it was well worth the wait. Federer, the state of the art in the game today, spent the last year rising above the field, and for two weeks his second straight Wimbledon victory seemed preordained. But Roddick, with an improved backhand, increasingly crisp volleys and the best second serve in tennis, had the weapons and will to push Federer to new heights. "He's a great front-runner," former U.S. Davis Cup captain Tom Gullikson said of Federer before the weekend. "Somebody needs to get on top of the guy and make him come back from a set or two down. Let's see what his competitive skills are."
Roddick opened the match with that intention. Blitzing Federer with 145-mph serves, returning Federer's deliveries deep and heavy, Roddick cornered the champion, never letting the artist pick up his brush, and ran out the first set in total command. Federer seemed to right things by picking up two breaks in the second set, but the relentless Roddick gained them back, and Federer knew he was in a place he had seldom been. He had to battle. When he broke Roddick with a pinpoint forehand up the line to take the second set, the usually unreadable Federer screamed, "Yessss!" and the crowd screamed with him. Suddenly the most dignified venue in sports felt like ringside in the seventh round.