CARLSBAD — Across the net, Kim Clijsters appreciated the opponent. Clijsters saw 19-year-old Maria Sharapova, who is learning nuance, who is willing to put a hold on her desire to hit every tennis ball harder than the next. Clijsters appreciated the way Sharapova kept her patience and was willing to construct a point of more than one or two shots.
"What I noticed a little bit," Clijsters said, "she wasn't going for her shots as much and that's where she's improved. Before, if her game wasn't on she was still trying to go for it. Today she would go for shorter angles, or sometimes put a higher ball in there. To see someone like her, a young girl come on tour, it's great to see how she grows up not only off the court but on."
The praise was honest and well-earned. Sharapova, seeded second, upset the top-seeded Clijsters, 7-5, 7-5, on Sunday in the Acura Classic championship match in front of a sellout crowd of 6,500 at La Costa Resort and Spa.
It was Sharapova's first win over Clijsters in five meetings and it gave Sharapova, the 2004 Wimbledon winner, her second title of the season and a big boost of confidence heading toward the U.S. Open.
Clijsters, a 23-year-old Belgian who is the defending Open champion, complained a little about a sore back that she will treat with massage and acupuncture as she takes a week off. But it wasn't pain or stiffness that caused the loss, Clijsters said after the 1-hour, 48-minute match.
"Maria, when she's playing well, has one of the best games out there," Clijsters said. "What she does well is she hits the ball very clean. Today she was moving really well too. Her attitude is great out there."
Sharapova won in straight sets, but the match never lacked for drama.
It was only one point in the ninth game of the first set, but it was packed with exquisite shot-making from two of the best players in the world. Clijsters and Sharapova hit volleys and lobs, angles and straight-on power strokes. They ran each other left, right, backward and forward and when the final ball was hit, a winning forehand by Clijsters, both players staggered to the ends of the court, looking for shade and oblivious to the reaction.
A standing ovation, a noisy appreciation for two women who were gasping for breath, went unheard by both. "It was basically survival," Sharapova said. "My legs were burning, I was out of breath."
"I was too tired to keep my eyes open," Clijsters said. "But that's what I enjoy so much about playing in America. The fans aren't shy to show emotions."
After exchanging service breaks for most of the first set, Sharapova earned the final one in the 12th game with aggressive use of her forehand when Clijsters was having trouble getting first serves in.
"My serve's been terrible," Clijsters said, "and it's a big key. It's easier in the first few rounds when you play girls who aren't going to attack on the second serve or weaker first serves. I'm not finishing my serves. I'm not finishing my motion fully, I'm not falling into the court as I should."
Sharapova exhibited her strong focus by saving a combined five break points in the seventh and ninth games of the second set.
In the seventh, Sharapova was down, 0-40, before she whacked a forehand winner and befuddled Clijsters with two well-placed service winners. She held serve with a 106-mph ace. In the ninth game it was advantage Clijsters twice and Sharapova won extended rallies on both points.
"I expected coming into the match that I had to be physically and mentally ready or I was going down," Sharapova said. "It was basically up to me to follow through with those things."
Sharapova earned $196,900 for her efforts but it was not the money that most pleased her.
"I played pretty solid against five players," she said. "I came out with five two-set wins. I've gotten match after match under my belt.
"It's the first time in a while to play five matches in one week, and I felt healthy and match-tough again."
Next up for Sharapova is the JPMorgan Chase Open at the Home Depot Center in Carson, where she is the top-seeded player.
Next up for Clijsters, who won last week at Stanford, is a week of rest and healing.
"I tried to go for everything when I was down," Clijsters said, "and it was not good enough today."
Or, as Sharapova said, "There's not a lot of things not to like for me."