NEW YORK – Maria Sharapova insists she's more about substance than style, and now she has a second Grand Slam title to prove it.
"This is an amazing honor," Sharapova said. "I'm so happy that it's here in New York, my favorite city in the world, in front of the best fans."
Sharapova burst onto the tennis — and endorsement — scene by winning Wimbledon in 2004 at age 17. She'd come close to adding more major championships since but went 0-5 in Slam semifinals — until this tournament.
When Henin-Hardenne, a finalist at all four majors this year, slapped one last forehand into the net, Sharapova dropped to her knees and covered her face, then rose and trotted to shake hands. Then Sharapova hopped up and down, looking for the first time all night like any other teen.
She climbed into the stands, losing her way briefly until being helped by an usher, for hugs with her father and her hitting partner, who've been sending her signals during matches about when to drink water or eat bananas.
But Sharapova needed very little help on court against Henin-Hardenne, a five-time major champion who would have returned to No. 1 in the rankings with a victory. By facing only one break point, and overcoming an early lapse, Sharapova wound up dominating a player with more impressive accomplishments.
Henin-Hardenne entered the night leading the tour in matches won (54), Grand Slam matches won (25) and tournament titles (five) this season.
"She's been a real fighter tonight," said the Belgian, who won the 2003 Open. "The better player won tonight."
Two games into Saturday night's final, a man's voice came from the sellout crowd of 23,712, screaming the tag line from Sharapova's oft-played current TV ad: "I feel pretty!" In the commercial, that tune is sung by various people as Sharapova walks out onto court. The punch line: Sharapova swings her racket and lets out one of her trademark shrieks.
Those high-pitched screams were muted at the start of the match, but within a few games, Sharapova was wailing as loudly as ever. Not that Henin-Hardenne was silent, punctuating points won by letting out, "Allez!"
Sharapova won the coin toss and elected to receive, then went out and stood right at the baseline while Henin-Hardenne hit practice serves at the end of the warmup session. Picture Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter taking batting practice against Red Sox starter Curt Schilling — it just doesn't happen in other sports.
Perhaps Sharapova noticed something, because she immediately earned two break points in the opening game. Henin-Hardenne saved both, then broke for a 2-0 edge with the aid of two double-faults by Sharapova, who never faced another break point.
But Sharapova broke right back — one free point came on a double-fault — and in the process came up with the shot of the evening: a half-volley drop winner to close a 10-stroke exchange. That was enough to claim the first set.
In the second, Henin-Hardenne finally succumbed to Sharapova's power and relentless shotmaking. At 3-3 in the third set came the final, key break of serve, after Henin-Hardenne led 40-15. She missed two backhands and double-faulted; after saving one break point, she set up another by sailing a forehand long. Under pressure from Sharapova's groundstrokes, Henin-Hardenne dumped a forehand into the net, making it 4-3. Sharapova yelled "Come on!" and jogged to the changeover.
"Come on!" from someone born in Siberia? Well, Sharapova has made her home in Florida since she was 7. After trying to call someone with her cell phone while waiting for the trophy ceremony, Sharapova leaned forward in her chair and said, "This is crazy!"
A few moments later came the biggest mistake Sharapova made all night. She tried hoisting the silver trophy above her head with two hands — and the top fell off. She giggled, then composed herself.
In her victory speech, Sharapova paid tribute to Billie Jean King, the former star player and pioneer for women's tennis. The USTA National Tennis Center was rededicated in her honor during a ceremony on the tournament's opening night.
"First and foremost, I would like to thank Billie Jean King for being such an amazing woman. Without her we would not be standing here today," Sharapova said. "What she's done for our sport and what she's done for women is absolutely incredible, and I've looked up to her since I was a little girl."
In contrast to Henin-Hardenne, in more traditional tennis attire topped by a white ballcap, Sharapova wore her night-match outfit, similar to a black cocktail dress, accessorized with silver shoes and dangling earrings. Sharapova says the look is inspired by "Breakfast at Tiffany's," but the guess here is Audrey Hepburn never had a sponsor's swoosh on her outfit.
Sharapova earned $1.7 million with her victory, although she makes far more from endorsement deals than prize money.
"I've been pretty good in the past balancing my time with my sponsors with my tennis, because I know my priority," Sharapova said in an interview two weeks ago. "At the end of the day, what I love doing is competing, and that's where my heart is at, on center court."