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Serena Caught in the Middle

Times Staff Writer

Theater of the absurd arrived at Staples Center in the form of the singles final at the WTA Championships on Monday night.

How absurd? How about starting at the ending?

One player slumped to the court after match point, sitting down as though she was either hurt or simply exhausted. That was the winner, 17-year-old Maria Sharapova of Russia, who defeated an injured Serena Williams, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, took home $1 million and added a nice bookend to her Wimbledon title.

“I don’t think I could have asked for anything better this year,” said Sharapova, who will be a career-high No. 4 when the season-ending rankings are released today. “It’s been an exciting year and to finish it off beating the best in the world ... I know I’m not showing a lot of emotion. But I’m speechless.”

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She had plenty of company in the building.

How often does a slow serve become a focus of absorbing drama? The clock measuring service speed became a point of fascination for many among the crowd of 11,397 every time Williams tossed the ball in the air to serve in the third set. But not in terms of how fast she was serving. The question was: How slow could it go?

Very.

There were Elena Dementieva-like serves of 67 mph. One serve of 61 mph landed out. Oh, where have you gone, Gabriela Sabatini?

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It was all part of the quirkiness in this rematch of the Wimbledon final of July. Sharapova won that in straight sets.

Monday night, Williams, despite suffering the obvious effects of an abdominal strain -- or possible tear -- won the first 11 points of the third set after receiving treatment during an injury timeout.

Sharapova looked increasingly confused and her shots were equally bewildering, flying into the net and out. Williams kept rolling, winning 12 of the first 13 points and building a 4-0 third-set lead on a go-for-broke strategy designed out of desperation.

“I don’t know. I just started hitting every ball as hard as I could,” said Williams. “I lived off a few of her mistakes.”

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Williams said she felt the pain in the opening game of the match but dismissed it, figuring it was a side stitch. The pain increased and Williams said on a scale of 1 to 10 it was “10 1/2 .” Maybe it was the words of the WTA’s chief executive, Larry Scott, coming back to haunt the final. A couple of hours beforehand, Scott met with reporters at a downtown hotel and noted the relative health of the event, pointing out that the trainer had been called for an injury just once during the championships.

Obviously, somebody forgot to knock wood.

But Williams showed a superb fighting spirit during these championships despite limited match play. She said she thought about not finishing Monday’s match and remembered how her older sister Venus had aggravated her own abdominal injury last year, leading to an extremely long layoff. So Williams held back on the serve, telling herself to “go easy.”

“I was really trying to chill,” she said.

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Did she think about going to an underhanded serve, a la Martina Hingis?

“I did,” Williams said. “But I thought that would be too tricky.”

Sharapova’s mind was racing but it didn’t stop working. “I tried to find a little opening and get back in,” she said. “Besides her serve, she didn’t look injured once she was actually playing.”

She became the first Russian player to win the season-ending tournament. Along the way she defeated two other Russians, U.S. Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and French Open champion Anastasia Myskina, for the first time.

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For Sharapova, this title bodes well heading into 2005. Williams won the WTA Championships in 2001 and followed by winning three Grand Slams in 2002.

“I can’t believe it,” Sharapova said during the courtside TV interview. “So many things are going through my mind. Oh, it was crazy. It was very unreal.”

Williams was gracious in defeat. But there has to be a growing concern about the series of injuries stalling the 23-year-old’s once-dominant career. “For a Serena year, it was subpar,” she said.

Then again, the runner-up’s check of $500,000 served to lessen the pain. “It’s definitely not a million but with the right investments it will be,” Williams said, smiling.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Past Champions

Winners of the last three season-ending WTA Championships played in Los Angeles:

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* 2004: Maria Sharapova def. Serena Williams, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4

* 2003: Kim Clijsters def. Amelie Mauresmo, 6-2, 6-0

* 2002: Kim Clijsters def. Serena Williams, 7-5, 6-3


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