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Matchup Served Up a Night to Remember

Times Staff Writer

Good stuff at Staples Center Monday night, and it wasn’t even Kobe throwing one in from beyond the three-point arc.

Yes, Virginia, this was tennis, but not your country-club, dress-up-in-Filas-and-pat-the-ball-around-until-lunch variety. This one had sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Oh yes, lots of cash, too. And even some philanthropy. Fox will have rounds of meetings tomorrow to try to figure out how it missed this one. It was, clearly, the Best Damn Tennis Show, Period.

The news is that Maria Sharapova beat Serena Williams in three sets in the WTA’s season-ending tournament. But that doesn’t even come close to covering this one.

The Billboard Girl won the Almost Grand Slam. The Staples people who promoted this event, and took a huge bath on it the last two years, coined the slogan that it was a tournament of eight women, six days and three million dollars. They got everything right except the number of women. They had seven women and a 17-year-old, and, guess what? The 17-year-old won. Back to the slogan drawing board.

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Not only did the 17-year-old, Sharapova, win, but she made the marketing guys look smart. They had seized on her, ah, tennis assets and posed her on billboards around the city, leaning against a tennis net with blonde pony tail flowing and long legs displayed. There were those in the media who, straight-laced and rigid in their ways, objected strongly and publicly to the use of a 17-year-old as a sex symbol.

But Monday night, Sharapova showed that she is more than just a pretty face, legs, arms, eyes, hair, teeth, etc.

She won in three sets, but it was among the most unusual three sets you will ever see. Sometime in the first set, she said the first game, Williams strained a stomach muscle serving. By the time the third set was about to be played, a trainer was a regular visitor and Williams had taken a five-minute break backstage.

When she returned, the Staples music man, on his game Monday, played the theme from “Welcome Back, Kotter.” When she hit her first serve of the third set, it was clear that she was going to have to win this match on ground strokes and defense, because the serve was reminiscent of days of old in women’s tennis, when France’s Francoise Durr used to play doubles by patting a little serve toward her opponent and running alongside it to the net.

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But, incredibly, the 65- and 70-mph mush balls that Williams was using just to get the rally started were driving Sharapova crazy. Williams, fully wrapped around her midsection with a bandage, somehow won the first 11 points and the first four games of the set. Whatever the trainer had given her, lots in the record crowd of 11,397 wanted some.

Now, the Staples music man was rocking the arena with the theme from “Rocky.” He had an athlete, injured, on the ropes, figuratively bloodied, but she was battling back, playing in pain, gutting it out, showing true grit.

You pick the cliche, send it to Fox and we’ve got a series.

Eventually, Sharapova got onto the mush balls and found a way to get back on track. How about six straight games?

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Oh, and yes. You might wonder what was at stake here. To the winner went $1 million, to the loser a measly $500,000. With two months until the Australian Open, the next tennis event that matters, Williams’ decision to fight on would appear to be an easy one: half-an hour of pain, two months to heal and maybe $500,000 more.

Plus, there was her self-proclaimed pain threshold.

“I like to fight ... I guess,” she said afterward.

But it was Sharapova doing all the fighting at the end, and it was Sharapova ending an incredible season, which had included an incredible victory at Wimbledon, with an incredible season-ending victory. Just think what she might be able to achieve when she becomes an adult. Next April 19. Mark it on the calendar. There are even some places where she can legally have a beer then.

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After she collected her check for the cool $1-mil and told the crowd that the Porsche that comes in the deal would be donated to benefit the families of children who were killed and injured in the Russian school shootings in September, she met the press and said, “I could not have asked for anything better this year.”

Nor, quite frankly, could the Anschutz Entertainment People, who rolled the dice on this event and not only got Monday night’s tennis thriller/soap opera, but also got big-league entertainment Sunday from the Amelie Mauresmo-Williams semifinal. Or the L.A. tennis fans, who have drifted from indifference to semi-fascination with these nights in November.

Now that it is over, one thing is clear: L.A. has just met a girl named Maria. Has kind of a ring, doesn’t it? You listening, Fox?


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