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Saturday, September 4, 2004
Pierce stuns Sharapova with big finish

Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Maria Sharapova and her father often trade glances between points. In the stands, Dad pounds his fist on his chest, and she mimics the signal.

It represents a simple message -- "Play with heart!" -- but the Wimbledon champion didn't use the gesture during a 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 upset loss to Mary Pierce in the U.S. Open's third round Saturday.

Instead, right over her heart and just below her sponsor's logo, Sharapova's silver dress carried a plain black ribbon. She wore it in memory of the more than 340 people, nearly half children, killed in a hostage-taking at a school in her native Russia.

"I lost today, but I still have to move on. It's not the end of the world," said Sharapova, who double-faulted 14 times and dropped the final five games. "There are a lot more important things in the world going on right now."

Given her almost perfect English, her all-grown-up strokes, and her poise on and off the court, it's easy to forget that Sharapova is just 17 and was born in Siberia.

If she hadn't flashed the tennis ability that prompted a move to Florida a decade ago, Sharapova might very well be just another teen readjusting to high school life this week, half a world away.

"The first of September is when so many kids go to school, the first day back. They go in with flowers and the whole family," she said. "Unfortunately, the terrorists decided to do something bad with those families and kids. It just shows that my loss is a little thing."

In other action, Justine Henin-Hardenne and Lindsay Davenport both advanced in straight sets. Henin-Hardenne beat Lisa Raymond 6-4, 6-3, Davenport got past No. 26 Elena Bovina 7-6 (7), 6-2.

Venus Williams defeated No. 20 Chanda Rubin 7-6 (4), 6-3 at night.

"This is one of the first times in a year that I've felt normal on the court. It's been so challenging,'' said 2000-01 Open champ Williams, who missed the 2003 tournament with an abdominal strain. "Today is the first day that I started to feel like I did before I was injured."

Pierce, a dozen years older than Sharapova, was superb after trailing 3-1 in the third set. The 1995 Australian Open and 2000 French Open champion displayed the powerful groundstrokes she rebuilt after missing months at a time with back and shoulder injuries.

When Sharapova slapped a return into the net on match point, Pierce went to her changeover chair, knelt and prayed.

"I just appreciate it so much more," said Pierce, who faces No. 9 Svetlana Kuznetsova next. "I believe in myself, and it's nice to have that confirmation actually happen in reality."

Sharapova dropped to 5-4 since winning Wimbledon, and two of those victories were three-setters at the Open.

Is it possible off-court commitments are taking a toll?

"It's not like she lost the match today because she had a photo shoot three weeks ago," coach Robert Lansdorp said. "She has to practice a little harder. We have to give her a little bit of time. She'll be fine."

Half an hour after her loss, Sharapova sat in a lounge, picking at a sandwich and chatting on a cell phone. She certainly didn't seem too flustered. A few feet away, her father sat with Lansdorp, studying the stats and quietly dissecting what happened.

During the match, Dad drew a warning from the chair umpire for coaching.

"My dad was shouting something, but I wasn't really looking," Sharapova said. "I was like: 'Whatever.'''