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Article:For one night at least, Sharapova is world's No. 1

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If Maria Sharapova plays close to as well in the next two rounds, there's no way she'll lose.

Sharapova played the match of her life Tuesday night in Melbourne (and early Tuesday morning here in North Carolina), dominating the world's No. 1 player, Justine Henin, 6-4, 6-0.

The match was in sharp contrast to Sharapova's loss to Serena Williams in the Australian Open final a year ago. That match was also one-sided, but not in Sharapova's favor. Williams simply overpowered Sharapova en route to the upset victory.

Such was the case for Sharapova in dismantling Henin.

For the first time since winning the U.S. Open more than 16 months ago, Sharapova appeared a very confident player. She didn't hit a single shot directly to Henin, making Henin race all over the court to cover Sharapova's shots. But many of those shots were unreachable, as Sharapova used a combination of power and placement to hit several winners.

ESPN2's commentators repeated throughout the match that Henin wasn't playing poorly. Rather, Sharapova was just on another level.

She showed no weaknesses. That issue of hitting double faults that has plagued Sharapova in the past? Gone. She didn't hit a single one, and she had a great first-serve percentage as well.

And most importantly, Sharapova showed a lot of heart against a very gutty player in Henin. This was most evident in the final game of the first set, a marathon that went to four deuces before Sharapova closed it with one of her several strong, two-handed backhands.

Henin had two chances to win the games, but she couldn't close it. Sharapova also had to keep her cool after after great shots by Henin kept the set alive on two occasions — including one Henin shot that hit the net and just barely dribbled over.

But Sharapova was able to withstand Henin's rally — Henin had broken Sharapova to make it 5-4 — and close out the set. And then, very impressively, she didn't let down one bit in the second set. Sensing the huge victory, Sharapova refused to lose a game in the set, continuing to pound Henin with a diversity of shots that kept Henin unsure of where the ball was headed.

Sharapova has never been considered a great net player, but that was another area where she outplayed Henin. She charged at the right times, when Henin was on her heels chasing a Sharapova screamer, and she finished nearly every opportunity she got.

This was a statement victory, no doubt about it. This entire tournament, Sharapova has played with a countenance of complete seriousness. She's all business on the court. You can tell she's eager to win another grand slam. For a player with her ability, it's been too long.

When the match was over, the handshake complete, an announcer commented, "And when fans see that (result) around the world, they are gonna be shocked."

Initially, maybe. But anyone who saw how well Sharapova played, should be shocked Henin managed to take four games.

Even if Sharapova doesn't play as well as she did Tuesday, she's on track to win her first Australian Open.

And perhaps en route to becoming the world's new No. 1.


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