LOS ANGELES - Men yelled encouragement and whistled at her. One tossed a long-stem red rose on the court. Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova was a big hit playing for the first time in the season-ending WTA Championships.
“I love it here. The atmosphere is great,” Sharapova said. “To be here where the Lakers play, you just feel that excitement. I love basketball.”
The Russian teenager had 23 winners Thursday night in a 6-1, 6-4 victory over U.S. Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova.
Earlier at the Staples Center, Amelie Mauresmo routed Vera Zvonareva 6-1, 6-0 to extend her winning streak to nine matches as the Frenchwoman tries to overtake Lindsay Davenport for the year-end No. 1 ranking.
In the late match, Serena Williams struggled for the second straight night, beating Elena Dementieva 7-6 (3), 7-5. Tied 5-all, Williams broke Dementieva with two solid forehand volleys and then served out the match when the Russian’s forehand sailed long.
Sharapova had never beaten Kuznetsova in three previous meetings, including a 6-2, 6-2 semifinal loss in Beijing in September.
“In Beijing, she was coming off such a big winning streak (14 matches) and she was unstoppable,” Sharapova said. “This time, it was important to start off well and put some pressure on her.”
Sharapova hit 69 percent of her first serves, which averaged 103 mph. She improved to 7-6 against her fellow Russians this year.
Tied 2-all in the second set, Sharapova went on to break Kuznetsova three times and closed out the hour-long match with a backhand winner.
“I didn’t serve well,” Kuznetsova said. “She was returning pretty good, but I let her do this. She was putting pressure on me all the time.”
Williams appeared cranky throughout her match, grimacing as shots sprayed out of bounds. She had 37 unforced errors, giving her a two-match total of 98. She won just eight more total points than Dementieva.
“I’m a perfectionist, I’m insatiable,” Williams said.
She has won just two titles this year, and none of them came in Grand Slam events. She didn’t qualify for this tournament until last week, when sister Venus lost in Philadelphia, giving Serena a berth.
“I’m hoping for a really good year next year. I’m not worried about this year,” she said.
Mauresmo remains on course for a potential tussle with Davenport.
The Frenchwoman’s winning streak includes titles the last two weeks in Philadelphia and Linz, Austria. She also reached the final last month in Filderstadt, Germany, but had to withdraw because of a groin strain.
Mauresmo spent five weeks in the No. 1 spot after the U.S. Open before her injury gave Davenport a walkover victory in Germany. That allowed the American to overtake Mauresmo, and Davenport could stay there if she reaches the final Monday night.
“Reaching the No. 1 ranking was a big step for me. I felt relief at that,” Mauresmo said. “Since then, I feel very confident on court and my game is there. I want to get the ranking back, but it’s very different than before I was number one. It was an obsession, but now I take it in a relaxed way.”
Making her first appearance in the season-ending tournament, Zvonareva committed 25 errors and never had a break point against Mauresmo’s serve. The Frenchwoman connected on 73 percent of her first serves.
“She got mad a little bit and I played some great tennis,” said Mauresmo, the runner-up to Kim Clijsters in last year’s final.
The players are assigned to Red and Black four-woman groups and play each other once. The two players with the best record from each group will advance to the semifinals. The singles winner will earn $1 million and a car to donate to charity.
Zvonareva is 0-2 so far, having lost 6-2, 6-4 to Kuznetsova on Wednesday night. For the second straight match, an emotional Zvonareva bounced her racket off the court, smacked balls in anger and tears streaked her face after the loss.
“Sometimes not everything works,” she said. “It was lots of pressure. Maybe that is why I couldn’t do one hundred percent. But I was fighting.”
Dementieva also is 0-2 in round-robin play.
Davenport didn’t play Thursday, but she received a new car as the leading qualifier for the eight-woman tournament.
After 16 consecutive years of always showing up at Wimbledon, winning five titles along the way, Venus Williams pulled out of the grass-court Grand Slam tournament Tuesday, citing a lower back injury.
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