Doha, Feb 25: Maria Sharapova maintained her unbeaten record in 2008 by winning her second title of the year with a win over fellow Russian Vera Zvonareva at the Qatar Open on Sunday.
The Australian Open champion won 6-1, 2-6, 6-0 against her unseeded but impressive opponent, producing a ferocious final set performance which once again underlined her as the player to beat right now. She had a decent test from the world number 27, who is coming back well herself from wrist and ankle injuries, and at times showed some of the rhythm, deception and fluency which once carried her into the world's top ten. Sharapova's improvement since last year has come not only from overcoming her shoulder problems but careful attention to injury-avoiding detail, as the way she worked her way carefully into this match suggested.
Sharapova: "I don't play nearly as much as the majority of girls because physically I don't think I can withstand it. I have to be smart about my scheduling," she said. "I'm hitting the ball well at the moment, but there is a long way to go through the season."
Sharapova nevertheless started as though her old ailment, the right shoulder were giving her trouble again. She served at a modest pace, made three unforced errors in the first five rallies and delivered a double fault. This cost her the opening service game, but at this stage Zvonareva was not at her best either, and Sharapova was soon making headway.
Two breaks of serve gave her a cushion to risk heavier and more ambitious attacks, which heaped more pressure on the unseeded player. That contributed to two double faults and another break of serve by Zvonareva in the sixth game, but once she had lost the first set she began to play better.
She began to return serve better, and then to find more accuracy and angles with her driving. As she did her confidence suddenly soared. Zvonareva broke Sharapova from 40-love up, and then held three times without too much difficulty, managing to coax more errors from the world number five's ground strokes.
Sharapova kept fighting however and kept the pace of her driving - not to mentions the decibels of her high-pitched vocal accompaniment - very high.
She saved four set points fruitlessly, but broke serve straight away at the start of the third set. This was an important blow psychologically, pummeling a loopy pace-change forehand from Zvonareva back with a flat backhand cross-court to complete the break, and setting up a new momentum.
Sharapova rode that to break again and advance quickly to 4-0, dragging Zvonareva from side to side with a series of more consistent groundstrokes. After that there was no stopping her. Sharapova ramapaged on and on, conceding a mere eight points in the final set and wrapping up the decider in a mere 20 minutes.
It was a triumphant end and suggested that Sharapova will go to Dubai next week, when world number one Justine Henin rejoins the tour, ready for just about anything.