Defending champ Sharapova wins at Open |

Defending champ Sharapova wins at Open

Howard Fendrich
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
Maria Sharapova of Russia serves to Roberta Vinci of Italy at the US Open tennis tournament in New York, Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2007. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

NEW YORK ” Maria Sharapova shanked a backhand wide, prompting her opponent to leap in the air and pump her fist and smile as though she’d won the match ” or, indeed, the U.S. Open championship itself.

Uh, not quite. That little celebration by 51st-ranked Roberta Vinci of Italy was for winning one game Tuesday night, allowing her to narrow Sharapova’s lead to 6-0, 5-1.

“I win one game, I’m happy,” Vinci said. “6-love, 6-love? No. 6-love, 6-1? OK.”

A few minutes and one hold of serve later, Sharapova’s 50-minute day was done, and she was into the second round at the tournament where she produced her second Grand Slam title a year ago.

“There’s no way to get rid of the memories when I walk on the court and feel the vibe,” the second-seeded Russian said, 600 crystals on her red dress sparkling in the Arthur Ashe Stadium lights. “Every corner I turn here, I get goose bumps.”

She compiled 15 winners before Vinci hit her first and finished with a 30-3 edge in that category during the 6-0, 6-1 victory ” part of a mini-parade of past champions in first-round action.

That included victories for Martina Hingis, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Lleyton Hewitt, with Andy Roddick still to play later.

Sharapova’s been on the wrong end of some routs at Grand Slam tournaments this year, including against Serena Williams in the Australian Open final and against Venus Williams in Wimbledon’s fourth round. And Sharapova, whose breakthrough came with the 2004 Wimbledon title at age 17, has been dealing with shoulder problems much of 2007.

No signs of that Tuesday, although she did double-fault twice on match point in the final game. Otherwise, about the biggest problem Sharapova had was when she missed a sip of water during a changeover and spilled a spot on her custom-made outfit.

Even Vinci took note of the getup, saying: “It’s difficult to play against her. Strong player. Nice girl. She has a nice dress.”

“It’s red this year, like the Big Apple, in honor of the city,” Sharapova told the crowd, before gathering her patent leather racket bag and black jeweled handbag and heading to the locker room.

Sharapova’s good feelings from her U.S. Open title are still fresh, but it’s been a decade since Hingis won the tournament. This year, Hingis took a stroll around the new workout room and simply had to smile while scanning the enlarged photos decorating the walls.

There among the posters of previous champions is one of Hingis, clutching her 1997 silver trophy, a different player and a different person.

“I’m like, ‘OK, I look really young.’ Short haircut, all that. It’s been 10 years,” she said. “Sometimes it feels like yesterday, sometimes like a lifetime.”

Hingis was willing to reminisce a bit after beating Mathilde Johansson of France 6-0, 6-3. Others winning Tuesday included a man many consider a likely future Grand Slam champion, No. 3-seeded Novak Djokovic, and No. 6 James Blake. The day’s biggest early surprise came when No. 9 Daniela Hantuchova, a past U.S. Open quarterfinalist, was eliminated by 50th-ranked Julia Vakulenko of Ukraine 6-4, 3-6, 6-1.

Hingis might face Kuznetsova in the fourth round, but that’s a little far to look ahead these days for the 26-year-old who used to be called “The Swiss Miss” ” in the long-ago days when she was atop the rankings and won five Slams. The days before she missed three years’ worth of majors because of foot and leg injuries. The days when Tuesday’s opponent would see Hingis on TV.

“Everybody was watching her,” the 22-year-old Johansson said.

Hingis returned to the circuit full-time in 2006, reaching two major quarterfinals. But her hip came out of alignment a few months ago, and that and back problems limited Hingis to a 4-4 record from the start of April until arriving in New York.

“I used to recover faster when I was younger,” she said, then compared her old self to the Energizer Bunny, before adding: “It’s not like that anymore.”

It’s been only about half as long since Hewitt won his title at Flushing Meadows in 2001, a triumph that helped him become, at 20, the youngest man to end a year ranked No. 1.

And yet for Hewitt, who like Hingis is seeded 16th at this Open, it probably feels at least as far away. Nonetheless, the 2002 Wimbledon champion figures there will be another title somewhere down the road as a reward for his always-churning legs and his zipping groundstrokes.

“I believe that, yeah, it’s in me, that’s for sure. I think I’m good enough,” Hewitt said after easing past Amer Delic of the United States 6-2, 6-4, 6-2. “That’s what my goal is. That’s what you keep striving toward, working for. Hopefully it will be around the corner.”

Said Delic: “I mean, the guy’s good.”

Blake agreed, saying: “Lleyton is playing some of the best tennis in the world right now. He’s got to be in the top five contenders for this title.”

While Hewitt is still chasing Slam No. 3, Blake and Djokovic are yearning for No. 1.

Blake is on quite a run right now, having reached the final of the Cincinnati Masters before losing to Federer, then winning the hard-court title at New Haven last week. He faced down a challenge from Michael Russell on Tuesday before advancing 7-6 (6), 6-3, 7-6 (4).

Blake failed to convert any of the eight break points he held in the first set, then had to save two set points in the ensuing tiebreaker.

“When I’m winning a lot of matches the way I have been, I get to 4-all, 5-all, 6-all in sets, I just feel like I’m going to win ’em,” Blake said. “I just have that confidence.”

Djokovic’s self-belief skyrocketed this month in Montreal, where he beat then-No. 3 Andy Roddick, Nadal and Federer in succession to win the title ” the first time since 1994 that someone beat the men’s top three players at a single tournament.

The 20-year-old Serb never has been beyond the third round at the U.S. Open, but he drew a supportive crowd for his 6-2, 6-1, 6-3 victory over Robin Haase of the Netherlands ” and was appreciative.

“I made a big breakthrough this year,” Djokovic said, “so everybody’s really interested.”