Maria Sharapova Reminisces About Winning Her First Grand Slam at 17, a Thrilling Wimbledon Upset Over Serena Williams

The day was July 3, 2004, and the match was a ladies’ singles final that looked a foregone conclusion

“It was a special day – I still can’t believe it was me.” — Maria Sharapova on how she stunned Wimbledon to win her first Grand Slam title

A summer’s day at the All England Club. Serena Williams is the defending champion, a titan of the court, training her flesh-melting stare on any rival who dares to stand against her. Maria Sharapova, tennis’s golden girl, is the challenger, shrieking her defiance with every forehand.

This is the rivalry Wimbledon-watchers have been praying for over the past decade. It is also a rivalry that has never really developed. Williams’s superiority over Sharapova has taken the edge off their on-court duels, even if their personal interactions remain chillier than liquid nitrogen.

There was one day, though, when the two most famous names in the women’s game produced a classic Wimbledon moment. The day was July 3, 2004, and the match was a ladies’ singles final that looked a foregone conclusion, much like the moment in Jurassic Park where the T-Rex meets the tethered goat.

Williams, the champion in 2002 and 2003, wanted a ‘three-peat’. Max Eisenbud, Sharapova’s agent, was simply hoping that his young protegee would put up a fight.

“Not for one second did I think she was going to win,” he recalls now. Yet Sharapova was powered by the invincibility of youth. She, and she alone, believed she could triumph.

“I had played Serena a few months before that for the very first time in my career,” Sharapova says. “I was quite overwhelmed by her power, by her physicality. She was everywhere on the court, and I remember feeling that type of ball and that pace was very different to any other opponent I’d played against.

“But I don’t remember going into that final being intimidated by what she had presented. I was a very fearless competitor.”

AP Photo/David Vincent
AP Photo/David Vincent

In her early years in Russia, and then during her time at Nick Bollettieri’s Academy in Florida, Sharapova had barely even seen a grass court. She knew they existed, from glimpses of Wimbledon on TV, but the first time she played on one was in a junior tournament at Roehampton, aged 15. She won it.

Sharapova was granted a wild card into the senior Wimbledon draw a year later, and more than justified the decision as she beat 11th-seed Jelena Dokic before falling in the fourth round.

“It’s funny, because what with practising and playing my own tournaments, I wasn’t so involved in watching Wimbledon. But for some reason every time I did see it on the TV I felt, ‘Wow’, there is something so special about it. They’d show the lawn and Henman Hill and I wanted to be part of that one day.

“As for grass, I remember liking it from the first time I played on it. I think you either just like something or you don’t. And I think because it’s so rare, I love those unexpected moments, the bounce is low and you’ve got to be quick, and all those things.”

When Sharapova began her 2004 crusade, against Yuliya Beygelzimer on Court No 13, most of the attention was on the big players in the draw, who included Andy Murray’s new coach Amelie Mauresmo. But she romped through the first week without dropping a set, before coming up against Lindsay Davenport in a memorable semi-final. This one included an hour-long rain delay, which Sharapova passed by reading OK! magazine.


“I think she was leading by a set and a break when the rain came,” says Sharapova. “I was down and out. But I was a happy girl. I was in the semi-finals for the first time. A few weeks ago I’d been a quarter-finalist at Roland Garros, and I was happy to be booking a flight home late in the second week of Wimbledon.

“Then the rain stopped and I remember just before I went on court my dad looked me in the eyes and said, ‘You’re going to win this match.’ And I gave him a ‘Yeah, right’ kind of look. It was tough to face him afterwards because you never want to admit when your father’s right.”

Sharapova’s 2-6, 7-6, 6-1 victory sent Eisenbud back to the travel agent to rebook flights for the third time that week.

“I don’t look back at the final very often but when I do I still sometimes feel like, ‘Oh, that moment actually happened!’. It was so inspiring and it was so unexpected in so many different ways, at that age and from anyone around me.”

On the rest day before that climactic match, she had woken up with a sore throat – usually a sign of a fever to come. The doctor was called, and she spent the day in an anxious tizzy, yet when play was called on a perfect summer’s Saturday, all her worries were forgotten. The first set lasted just 26 minutes as her ferocious groundstrokes made Williams look ponderous and uncertain.

“It was incredible to step out at that moment and play with no fear,” says Eisenbud, “like she knew she was going to win.”

Williams pressed to regain the initiative in the second set, but Sharapova produced arguably the shot of the match – a backhand topspin lob, played at a dead run to her left – to help her hold serve for 4-4. Two games later, the job was done.

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

“I just remember being on the ground and looking at the box and shaking my head and saying, ‘Did this really happen?’.” She climbed up to her player’s box to embrace her father, Yuri, and then made a desperate attempt to contact her mother Elena, who was on a plane at the time. Savvy as ever, Eisenbud tossed a handset down onto the court for the mobile phone call, a stunt he later parlayed into an endorsement deal with Motorola.

“People were throwing all sorts of invitations at Maria after that final,” he says. “Some of them were offering to swing by and pick her up in a private jet. But her ability to say no is an amazing thing. To me, that’s why she has been so successful.

“At the French Open, these exciting young 20-year-olds like Garbine Muguruza and Eugenie Bouchard were being feted for reaching the semi-finals or whatever. But you’ve got to remember that Maria had won three grand slams by the time she turned 21.”

That glorious summer’s day was the start of an equally glorious sequence for Sharapova, which would only be interrupted by a shoulder reconstruction in 2008.

“When I look back,” she says, “people must have been thinking, ‘It lasted two weeks, can she do it again?’ And then I did do it again, at the US Open and the Australian Open. I’m proud of all those moments, but the Wimbledon title was very special.

“It’s nice not to look back at it too often, because when you do look back, it’s still fresh.”

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