x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

At 24, Maria Sharapova is the old lady of Wimbledon

The Russian is three years older than Wimbledon's other three semi-finalists and, more importantly, she has been at this stage before.

Russia's Maria Sharapova celebrates defeating Slovakia's Dominika Cibulkova.
Russia's Maria Sharapova celebrates defeating Slovakia's Dominika Cibulkova.

Once a teenage sensation, Maria Sharapova is finding herself the elder stateswoman at Wimbledon this year.

At 24, the Russian and three-time grand slam champion is the oldest of the women's semi-finalists at the All England Club, and by far the most experienced.

The other three remaining players - Victoria Azarenka, Petra Kvitova and Sabine Lisicki - are all 21 and have no grand slam finals appearances between them.

Only Kvitova has even reached a grand slam semi-final before, having made the last four at Wimbledon last year as well.

Being the veteran is a new situation for Sharapova, who was just 17 when she won her only Wimbledon title in 2004.

"I think a few years don't really make that much of a difference," the fifth-seeded Sharapova said.

"I think maybe if I achieved big things when I was a little bit older, not 17, maybe I wouldn't be seen as more of a veteran. I'd still be considered young. But I don't regret for a second that I had a lot of success when I was young, because I feel like I got to learn so much more than players at my age."

Today, Sharapova will play Lisicki, the 62nd-ranked German who became only the second wild card to reach the women's semi-finals at Wimbledon after Zheng Jie in 2008. The fifth-ranked Azarenka of Belarus plays No 8 Kvitova from the Czech Republic.

Sharapova followed up her Wimbledon title by winning the 2006 US Open and 2008 Australian Open, before shoulder surgery that year derailed the next 10 months and forced her to drastically change her serve.

But after dominating Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia 6-1, 6-1 on Tuesday, she finally looks close to being the same player who reached the No 1 ranking in 2005.

Sharapova has not been this far at Wimbledon since 2006, with the Williams sisters having dominated the grass-court grand slam since Sharapova's 2004 victory. But with both Venus and Serena eliminated in the fourth round — along with top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki — the Russian is the big favourite to emerge with another title.

She just has to get past those young challengers first. None of them are exactly new faces in women's tennis, the way Sharapova was when she made her breakthrough.

"In one sense, yeah, they're coming up, because they're reaching the bigger stages of the grand slams and they're trying to win their first one as well," Sharapova said. "But I also feel it's not the first time I'm seeing them in the draw or seeing them at the tournament, as well. It's not like they're 15 or 16 years old."

Still, regardless of who wins this year, it will be the youngest women's champion since Sharapova's victory.

While the Russian's opponent today is the only remaining player outside the top 10, Lisicki's low ranking belies her talent. She slipped out of the top 200 last year after spending seven weeks on crutches with an ankle injury. Lisicki has won 11 successive grass court matches this year, taking the title at the warm-up tournament in Birmingham, and is now the first German woman since Steffi Graf in 1999 to reach the last four at the All England Club.

On her way there, she knocked out Li Na, the French Open champion, in three sets after saving two match points on Centre Court.

"I have absolutely nothing to lose," Lisicki said. "I just enjoy myself out there on the court so much. It's just so great, and I'm so thankful to be out there on the court again that I'm enjoying every minute of it."

Kvitova is looking to become just the third left-handed woman to win Wimbledon after Ann Jones in 1969 and the nine-time champion Martina Navratilova. "It's [an] advantage here for sure," Kvitova said about being left handed.

Azarenka is the highest-ranked player left in the draw, but has never experienced a grand slam semi-final before.

"Looking at the rankings everybody says, 'You should have been already in the semi-finals'," Azarenka said. "It was a great win for me to go through that. It was important. I'm just happy to be in the semi-final, and looking forward to work even harder."

* Associated Press

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