The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Long on verve, short on serve

New York, Sept. 4: The Grunt beat the Chant ' 6-2, 6-1.

Much of India stayed up well past midnight to watch its rising star Sania Mirza test her quality against the best in the world and come up short, though by not as much as the scoreline suggests.

She walked quickly off the court at the end of the match after a brief handshake with the winner and a mumbled congratulation, possibly a tad disappointed.

Eighteen-year-old Sania Mirza need not be because ' as the tennis world was saying ' there’s a bright future that lies ahead as she walked off the Arthur Ashe court at Flushing Meadows awash in afternoon sunshine.

The match started late. Sania entered, in a light red shirt, white skirt and a white cap protecting her against a harsh sun as a huge cheer went up and the chanting began, staying with her until Sharapova’s grunt drowned it and her big serves raced past the Indian, half her size.

The Russian, a few months younger and looking as pretty as she always does in a baby blue dress bordered with yellow ' a sunshade of the same colour girding her blonde head ' stamped her class early in the first set with a backhand down the line to go 30-0 up. She closed out the first game in a hurry as Sania hit long.

Even before the two 18-year-olds had started their baseline slugfest, the large Indian presence in the crowd ' their strength of voice suggesting a much bigger contingent than there actually was ' had switched on the chanting machine. SAANIA, SAANIA, they went.

Often a tentative starter, Sania was striking the ball sweetly and unleashed a crashing forehand to go 40-15 up and then finishing off the game to a roar from her supporters.

Completely outplayed in crowd support, Sharapova double-faulted. The play of her pretty index finger as it moved across her forehead to brush away non-existent stray hair might have appeared a little nervous. But she held serve with ease and broke Sania.

Within minutes the Indian was 1-3 down, but she came out blazing the next game, hitting brilliant shots on either side of the court, going up 15-40. She had a double breakpoint, Sharapova saved one, but not another. Sania had the chance to draw level on her serve.

Until this point the match was even, Sania matching her better known opponent and the first seed at the US Open stroke for stroke, often catching her off-balance and taking the spectators’ breath away with her sharply angled shots.

But the hint of the end was already there, though Sania continued to strike the ball with great power.

It was her serve, as many experts had pointed out before the match, that let her down. Sharapova broke her as many as five times.

“She gave her best. It is her muscle injury which has hurt her serves. In a year or so, she will be fit to take on the world again,” said her mother Naseema in Hyderabad.

The second set was similar to the first, only Sania’s serves were weaker still. She got in only 52 per cent of her first serves against Sharapova’s 69.

And as Sania breezed off after the match, Sharapova tarried, signing balls and then flirted a little with the crowd much of which had stood against her. She raised her long arm, almost doing a ballet movement, hit each of the three balls she had in her hands into the crowd as it erupted in glee.

Sharapova toys with the crowd as well as the tennis ball. Sania has to learn the second.

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