No one escapes the humbling. That's clear now. Serena Williams had been tennis's great exception for so long, first defying the experts by not playing junior tournaments, then breaking the rules of family pecking order, finally dominating despite injury and distraction, always smiling and unbowed. If anyone could sidestep the sport's crudest cycle, the wheel of succession that sends up a cold-eyed teen to stalk and harry the aging champion, it would be Serena. Wouldn't she waltz into a new life before anyone could take her down?
No. Last Saturday afternoon the 22-year-old Williams, winner of the past two Wimbledons and one of the best closers in history, walked onto Centre Court for another Grand Slam final and felt the wheel turn. Across the net, a 17-year-old girl ran about like a deer, pelted golden groundstrokes, filled the moist air with her unmistakable want. Williams had been that girl once, when she won her first Slam, at the 1999 U.S. Open, but suddenly that felt like long ago. Maria Sharapova, seeded 13th, beat Williams 6-1, 6-4 to win the 2004 All England championship, but neither that score nor the other numbers that certified the most stunning title run in Wimbledon history told the full tale. You had to see it.
Over 73 minutes Sharapova stripped away Williams's armor, the hauteur that has marked her in her prime, and the resulting sights and sounds were almost unimaginable: Williams slipping at the key moment of an epic rally and bouncing on her rear end; Williams, too startled to handle a laserlike Sharapova return, emitting a loud moan; Williams taking a ball on the nose after it ricocheted off her racket; Williams, down a break point at 4-4 in the second set, slipping again, on her way to the net, and whacking a forehand wide. Then there was Williams, never before at a loss for answers, meeting the press after the match and saying, "I just didn't...I don't know what happened."
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Despite the rain's wiping out two days and interrupting matches at a maddening rate, and despite a London subway strike, this year's Wimbledon may well go down as the most satisfying and important tournament of the decade. It would have been worth all the trouble just to see Roger Federer and Andy Roddick locked in their wonderfully tense brawl in Sunday's men's final, during which Roddick's take-no-prisoners attack tested the world's No. 1 as never before, and Federer's 4-6, 7-5, 7-6, 6-4 win confirmed his greatness. But more important, women's tennis was revived by an icy blast of Russian charisma. Saturday's match was no fluke. Sharapova had showed preternatural self-possession all tournament, whether regally picking off dangerous players such as Daniela Hantuchova and Amy Frazier or coming back from a set down to beat both Ai Sugiyama in the quarterfinals and Lindsay Davenport in the semis. "I had control of the match," Davenport said, "and she took it from me."
On Saturday, Sharapova strolled onto a Centre Court stuffed to the beams with history and 13,808 oh-so-proper strangers, and after racing off the court to go to the bathroom—setting the place all amurmur—she came back and rolled over Williams. "I wasn't nervous at all," Sharapova said a day later. "I knew that the power was within me: Whatever I wanted to achieve, I could do it—and I did."
Fittingly enough, Britain's Iron Lady, former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, sat witnessing tennis's new Iron Maiden serve for the match at 5-4, 40-30. Sharapova told herself, Finish it off "Then there's this big noise," she said. "I'm on my knees, and I'm thinking, What have I just done?"
What indeed? Sharapova climbed into the stands to hug her bellowing dad, Yuri, and in the seconds it took her to trot back down to the court to receive the Venus Rosewater Dish, she had become a star. The 6-foot beauty has already signed with IMG Models, making for the easy comparison to her underachieving compatriot, Anna Kournikova. Sharapova rejects the analogy ("I never considered myself as a pinup," she said. "I never will"), and there are good reasons to think she's in tennis for the long haul. First, when Wimbledon mints a new champion, she's almost always the real deal. Second, the toughest critics have sniffed out Sharapova's game and given it the highest compliment. "She reminds me a bit of myself, how she's fearless," says five-time Grand Slam champion Martina Hingis.
"She's kind of like me: She doesn't back off," says Williams.
"At 17, to already have that ability? It's amazing," Roddick says. "There's something inside her that's pretty impressive."