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Upstart Can't Pull Off Upset

Karatancheva, a wild-card entry, stirs tennis world with bold prediction but loses to 16th-seeded Sharapova at Pacific Life Open.

March 16, 2004|Bill Dwyre | Times Staff Writer

As far as butt-kicking goes, this one was Dewey Defeats Truman. Didn't happen, but it sure got lots of attention.

While it lasted, the excitement that 14-year-old wild-card entry Sesil Karatancheva created at the Pacific Life Open by saying she would kick Maria Sharapova's butt, then almost backing it up by winning the first set Monday, was fun.

Then Sharapova, the 16th-seeded Russian, restored order, defeating the Bulgarian teen, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, at Indian Wells.

In the bland world of tennis, one player talking about kicking another's butt is like Mike Tyson telling a reporter whose question he didn't like that he'd eat his children. They almost never take the gloves off in tennis, so when Karatancheva did so before her match with Sharapova, it was Christmas in the desert for the media. And, of course, "butt" wasn't the word she used.

Not since the Olympics in Atlanta, when organizers shifted the schedule and left ticket-holders unable to see Andre Agassi play doubles, has there been such turmoil in the sport of the civilized people.

An aghast Bud Collins, legendary tennis writer, said it best that day: "My God, they are rioting at tennis."

So Monday morning, on a side court, in heat that was melting fountain pens, the main body of the attending tennis press, including Collins, left two-time defending men's champion Lleyton Hewitt to toil unwatched on stadium court and trudged out to see two teenagers, total age of 30.

And when Karatancheva took the first set against Sharapova, visions of tennis stories on Page 1 were everywhere.

Even when Sharapova got to 5-0 in the third, the die-hards stayed, only to be let down when she hit a flashy inside-out forehand winner on her fourth match point. The victory was predictable and well-earned by Sharapova, who has already worked her way to No. 24 and has won two titles on the tour.

This will be her first advance to a fourth round in a tournament of this stature, a tier one on the women's tour.

When it was over, she let out a whoop of relief and marched to the net for a chilly handshake with Karatancheva. Sharapova's father, Yuri, snarled a few things in Russian and suggested, in English, that his daughter give her defeated opponent an autograph.

Sharapova's coach, Robert Lansdorp of Palos Verdes, was no less grateful that his student had gotten through this unexpected pressure-cooker.

"The other girl can really play," he said. "Maria was just too wound up at the beginning, and it took her a while to just settle down and figure it out. This was tough for Maria in lots of ways. It was like a soccer match out there, and I'm sure she just wanted to blow this chick off the court."

The rest of the day included a predictable victory by the No. 1 player in the world, Belgian Justine Henin-Hardenne, 6-1, 6-2, over qualifier Marta Marrero of Spain, and impressive advances into the fourth round by, among others, veterans Conchita Martinez of Spain and Anastasia Myskina of Russia and red-hot newcomer Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia.

Martinez, in her 17th year on the tour and 10 years removed from her best moment in tennis, a 1994 Wimbledon title, took out American doubles specialist Lisa Raymond, 6-4, 7-5, and Myskina, seeded seven spots above Martinez at No. 4, struggled through three sets before beating Maria Vento-Kabchi of Venezuela, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3.

Kuznetsova, who won't turn 19 until June, spent last season playing doubles successfully with Martina Navratilova, who switched partners this year to play with Raymond in hopes of gaining the Olympics doubles spot. Kuznetsova, concentrating more on singles, has jumped to No. 14 and holds the only win this season against Henin-Hardenne. Monday, she saved two match points and beat Alicia Molik of Australia, 3-6, 7-6 (6), 6-2.

Karatancheva, despite her failed Joe Namath, stumbled during her postmatch interview when she tried to spin the kick-her-butt statement, but recovered near the end when asked what the coolest thing was about her native country Bulgaria.

"I was born there," she said.

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