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Maria Worship in Full Flower

Times Staff Writer

Flowers hit the court shortly after Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova left it following her successful debut at Staples Center on Thursday night in the season-ending WTA Championships.

So, is tennis going to turn into figure skating? The sport where bouquets of flowers and teddy bears are tossed onto the ice and cleaned up by little children who look like elves?

If so, let’s hope the officiating controversies stay away. The atmosphere for the all-Russian match between U.S. Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and Sharapova, the heavily promoted poster girl of the Championships, harkened to days of Anna Kournikova, at least back when she used to play legitimate tour matches.

There were loud shouts of encouragement for “Maria!” And someone yelled that they liked her red visor. “I thought it was pointless,” Sharapova said later. Then there was the man who moved to the back of the court, behind a barrier, with the flowers and was stymied by an usher in his attempt to get to the side of the court.

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So, looking irritated, he resorted to tossing what looked like red roses on the court. Sadly, for him, Sharapova already was out of there and a ball kid picked up the flowers and put them to the side of the court.

It all added up to adulation, compliments and the 17-year-old Sharapova’s first win in three matches against Kuznetsova, 6-1, 6-4, in front of 8,434. All that was missing was a marriage proposal, and that probably would have happened if the match had gone three sets.

“First of all, I’m just so excited to be here, to be one of the top eight girls that had tremendous years. ... I was very excited, knowing the Lakers play here,” said Sharapova, who had 23 winners and four aces. “I went out there and played my game and I was on.”

Said Kuznetsova: “She was at the top of her game today and she was hitting the ball very hard. So I was trying to do something. I was trying to hit harder. ... I didn’t serve that well. But she was doing pretty well. She was putting pressure on me all the time.”

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Sharapova was asked if the vocal support distracted her during a match.

“It depends on how loud they are,” she said, laughing. "... It is difficult when some fans are a little crazy.”

In other matches on the second night, Amelie Mauresmo of France, a finalist here last year, had a successful opener, defeating Vera Zvonareva of Russia, 6-1, 6-0. Serena Williams defeated Elena Dementieva of Russia, 7-6 (3), 7-5.

Williams won her first match of the Championships, defeating Anastasia Myskina of Russia in three sets Wednesday night, and Dementieva had a difficult start in her opener against Lindsay Davenport, who beat Dementieva, 6-0, 6-1, in a match that ended shortly before midnight Wednesday.

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That set the lofty standard, and the No. 2-ranked Mauresmo, who is chasing Davenport for the season-ending No. 1 ranking, met it against an overmatched Zvonareva.

“I want to get this ranking back,” said Mauresmo, who held the No. 1 ranking for five weeks this year. “But it is very different from before when I was never No. 1. It was obsession. And now it is very different. I take it in more of a relaxed way. But now I want it back.”

The view from the summit changed things for the French player, especially in terms of her mental outlook. And Mauresmo showed up in Los Angeles as the form player on the tour, with a two-tournament winning streak.

“Reaching the No. 1 ranking in September was a big step forward for me and I felt relief with that,” Mauresmo said. “I really felt that I have achieved something great, especially since in France I am the first one, man or woman, to achieve that.”

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Little went right for Zvonareva, who has won only seven games in two matches at the Championships. She lost to Mauresmo in three sets in the Philadelphia final on Sunday, but Mauresmo could do little wrong Thursday.

Zvonareva, meanwhile, double faulted nine times and had a first-service percentage of 52%.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Championships

Scores are from first- and second-day round-robin play. Initials are for players listed at left. Today’s schedule (play begins at 6:30 p.m. at Staples Center):

* Lindsay Davenport vs. Anastasia Myskina. * Maria Sharapova vs. Vera Zvonareva. * Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Amelie Mauresmo.

No. represents player’s tournament seeding.

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RED GROUP

*--* No. Player L.D. A.M. E.D. S.W. RR* W-L** 1. LINDSAY 6-0, 6-1 1-0 2-0 DAVENPORT 3. ANASTASIA 6-4, 0-1 1-2 MYSKINA 3-6, 4-6 5. ELENA 0-6, 1-6 0-1 0-2 DEMENTIEVA 7. SERENA 4-6, 7-6 1-0 2-1 WILLIAMS 6-3 6-4 (3), 7-5

*--*

*

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BLACK GROUP

*--* No. Player A.M. S.K. M.S. V.Z. RR* W-L** 2. AMELIE 6-1, 6-0 1-0 2-0 MAURESMO 4. SVETLANA 1-6, 4-6 6-2, 6-4 1-1 2-2 KUZNETSOVA 6. MARIA 6-1, 6-4 1-0 2-0 SHARAPOVA 8. VERA 1-6, 0-6 2-6, 4-6 0-2 0-4 ZVONAREVA

*--*

* -- RR: Round-robin record; ** -- W-L: Sets won-lost

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Format: Each player will play the others in her group (with one rest day), with the two top players from each group advancing to the knockout semifinals Sunday. The group winners will play the runners-up with the winners advancing to Monday’s final.


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