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Sharapova wins on clay

Top-seeded Russian prevails on soft surface

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Maria Sharapova returns a shot to Dominika Cibulkova during her win Sunday.

Maria Sharapova returns a shot to Dominika Cibulkova during her win Sunday.

Phil Coale, Associated Press

AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. — Maria Sharapova entered the Bausch & Lomb Championships with hopes of gaining some experience on clay.

She got a lot more than that — her first title on the soft, slippery surface.

Sharapova overcame five double-faults and 33 unforced errors to beat Dominika Cibulkova 7-6 (7), 6-3 on Sunday. The top-seeded Russian became the first player on the WTA Tour to win three times in 2008. She also won the Australian Open and at Doha.

"I've been fortunate that I could start the clay season early and that I could get a win and my first title on clay, which is exciting," she said.

Sharapova improved to 22-1 this year, earned a crystal vase and $95,500, and maybe more important, gained valuable experience in the first clay-court event of the season.

Sharapova played only one event on clay before last year's French Open, where she lost in the semifinals in straight sets to Ana Ivanovic. The loss prompted her to focus more attention on the fast, sometimes unpredictable surface this time around.

It started at Amelia Island, where she needed a combined six hours to win matches in the third and quarterfinal rounds.

But all that time on the court helped her figure a few things out.

"Try to move in, look for short balls and come in more often," she said. "I sometimes hesitate doing that even on hard courts. On clay, it's just so much more important. Hopefully with experience, I can be able to move in a little bit more and take a few more balls out of the air."

Sharapova plans to practice the approach at next week's Family Circle Cup in South Carolina and again overseas before the French Open in late May. And with much more clay confidence.

"This is definitely a big plus," she said.

Cibulkova, an 18-year-old Slovakian playing in her first WTA final, had plenty of chances to pull off an upset. She was up 4-2 in the first-set tiebreaker before making two unforced errors that helped Sharapova battle back.

She also was ahead 2-1 in the second set before summoning a trainer and getting her left quadriceps muscle wrapped. Cibulkova felt she pulled the muscle, slowing her mobility and prompting her to try to end points early to avoid too much running.

Sharapova took advantage, working her opponent side to side and winning five of the final six games.

"I had a lot of chances," said Cibulkova, who finished with 22 unforced errors. "I missed so many easy shots. I made quite stupid mistakes today. If you want to beat (a player like Sharapova), you can't make this many mistakes."

It didn't help Cibulkova that she was coming off a three-set victory in the semifinals Saturday and facing someone who got a day off to rest.

Sharapova got a walkover against Lindsay Davenport in the other semifinal. Davenport withdrew after waking up with a fever and feeling sick.

"Obviously, a big advantage," Sharapova said. "It's a lot easier on the body just practicing for an hour than going out and playing a match against a tough opponent."

The walkover was just one of many strange things that happened to Sharapova during the week. She got presented with a bag of popcorn during an on-court interview, then got denied permission to use the restroom by the chair umpire in one match.

"And on top of that, I was lucky and fortunate that I could scrap my way through those two tough matches," Sharapova said. "I was playing from behind in both of them. At the end of the day, I'm leaving this tournament as a champion. I guess that's a good thing. I can't complain."

DAVIS CUP: At Winston-Salem, N.C., Andy Roddick proved dominant again in the Davis Cup, sending the defending champion United States past France on Sunday and into the semifinals against Spain. Behind a blistering serve, Roddick defeated Paul-Henri Mathieu 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 for the deciding victory in the best-of-five quarterfinal. This was Roddick's second singles victory in three days.

A day after a loss by the No. 1 doubles team of Bob and Mike Bryan kept France's hopes alive, Roddick was never threatened in giving the Americans an insurmountable 3-1 lead. While he was held to 17 aces, he lost only 13 points on his serve to improve to 10-0 in clinching situations for the U.S.

In a concluding singles match that had no bearing on the outcome, James Blake defeated Richard Gasquet 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-4 for a 4-1 final score.

Next up for the U.S. is a road matchup against Rafael Nadal and Spain in the semifinals Sept. 19-21, which almost certainly will be on clay.