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By Martyn Herman
PARIS, June 8 (Reuters) - Serena Williams proved an irresistible force once more as she powered past Maria Sharapova 6-4 6-4 to win the French Open for the second time on Saturday - 11 years after her first triumph.
Defending champion Sharapova threw everything at the 31-year-old Williams but came up short as the American became the oldest woman to lift the Suzanne Lenglen Cup since tennis turned professional in 1968.
Apart from an edgy start, when she trailed 2-0, Williams didn’t take a backwards step.
The harder Sharapova hit the ball and the louder the Russian grunted, the more Williams fixed her gaze on her rival and replied in clinical fashion.
And if any game defined Williams’s performance and what makes her such a phenomenal player, it was the last.
Serving for the championship at 5-4, the American could have been excused a few nerves, especially with Sharapova still scrapping like an alley cat at the other end.
But Williams took a few deep breaths, boomed down an ace, jabbed away a backhand winner after Sharapova had fizzed a return, and then secured victory with two more aces before sinking to her knees in celebration.
Her one hour, 46-minute victory extended her current winning streak to 31 matches and took her haul of grand slam singles titles to 16 from the 20 finals she has contested.
“It was very difficult,” Williams, who lost to Sharapova in the 2004 Wimbledon final but beat her three years later in the Australian Open final, said in acceptable French on court.
“After 11 years it’s incredible. Thank you to the crowd. I want to come back here and win again. I think I‘m Parisienne.”
Sharapova rued a few missed opportunities but said she had no complaints, pointing out that Williams’s serve is faster than that of men’s singles finalist David Ferrer.
“I think getting to the Roland Garros final is not too shabby, so I’d say that’s a positive,” the 26-year-old said.
“I put up a fight today, but it was not enough.”
Since losing in the first round here last year to Virginie Razzano, Williams has been virtually unstoppable.
Winning the Wimbledon and U.S. Open crowns, her procession was briefly checked at the Australian Open this year when young American Sloane Stephens ambushed her in the quarter-finals.
Saturday’s triumph was her sixth title of a year that is on course to become one of the best of her career.
Sharapova had walked on to a muggy Chatrier Court trying to overturn a 12-match losing run against Williams, and things started promisingly as she recovered from 0-40 down in her opening service game and then broke for a 2-0 lead.
Sharapova took heart from some early Williams errors as the American settled, and a second-serve ace helped Sharapova to 40-15 and within a point of establishing a 3-0 lead.
World number one Williams hit back with some thumping drives, though, and broke serve with a solid overhead after forcing Sharapova all over court.
After holding for 2-2, Williams engineered more break points as Sharapova again went 0-40 down, and this time Williams did not let the Russian off the hook, nailing an unreturnable forehand winner that left Sharapova scrambling.
Sharapova refused to be intimidated and dragged herself level at 4-4 when Williams sent a backhand wide.
But there was no respite for Sharapova, and she was under pressure immediately as Williams broke serve for a third time, clenching her fist as a stinging forehand winner flew past her outstretched opponent.
Williams held serve to claim the opener after 51 minutes.
Sharapova began the second set at full tilt, bombarding Williams’s baseline, but it was Williams who was the calmer, more efficient and more creative player.
However frantically Sharapova seemed to be pedalling, Williams cruised along in a higher gear before surging into the distance.
Williams failed to convert two break points at 0-0 but at 1-1 the pressure began to tell on Sharapova, who surrendered serve with a miss-hit backhand into the tramlines.
Four-times grand slam champion Sharapova, thrashed by Williams in last year’s Olympic singles final, hung on in the hope that Williams’s level would drop.
It proved a forlorn hope.
Editing by Stephen Wood