The last time Maria Sharapova beat Serena Williams, LeBron James was beginning his sophomore season in the NBA. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who is set to start in his second Super Bowl on Sunday, was also a sophomore back in November of 2004.
In high school, that is.
Needless to say, Sharapova has to think back a long way to remember what it was like to vanquish Williams in a tennis match. It happened at the WTA Tour Championships, which have since changed their name to WTA Finals, at Staples Center in Los Angeles. The imperious 17-year-old version of Sharapova won the event that marked the end of that particular season. Looking back at the final rankings for the 2004 campaign is eye opening: Six of the Top 10 women have retired. The top two females for that year, Lindsay Davenport and Amelie Mauresmo, can be seen at this year’s Australian Open – as coaches (and in Davenport’s case, also as a broadcaster).
The higher-ups in women’s tennis probably thought they had hit the jackpot back then. Six years apart in age, Sharapova and Williams seemed destined to produce the kind of classic rivalry that raises the profile of an entire sport. One could foresee the contrasting foes dueling it out in endless big matches for years to come, the outcome always in doubt. However, the younger Williams sister had other plans.
Over the past 11 years, Serena turned the rivalry into a rout. Their head-to-head encounters have become such a bloodbath that the WTA should probably require age-verification before allowing fans to have a look. Here are a few of the grisly particulars:
- In the 15 times that Williams has beaten Sharapova since that Los Angeles match, she’s only lost a set three times.
- Of those 33 sets played since the end of 2004, ten have been either 6-0 bagels or 6-1 breadsticks. Only two have made it as far as a tiebreaker.
- Sharapova has failed to win more than five total games in seven of the 15 matches. Two of them were fairly high profile: the 2007 Australian Open final, and the 2012 Gold Medal match at the London Olympics.
You get the picture. The Red Wedding had less gore than this. How did it happen?
One could easily build a narrative based on a traumatic defeat. After all, the next time Sharapova and Serena met after the aforementioned Staples Center match was in the Australian Open semifinals just two months later. Sharapova found herself serving for a straightforward victory at 5-4 in the second set when she lost three straight games. Then, she’d go on to serve for the match at 5-4 in the third, only to see three match points vanish into thin air – two of them in emphatic manner (they can be found at the 11:55 mark):
Sharapova would end up losing that match 8-6 in the third. And after that traumatic defeat, the Russian would have to wait three years just to take a set from Serena Williams again (at Charleston in 2008). The next – and to this date, last – successful set for Sharapova came in 2013.
Like I said, it’s tempting to build this narrative. But like everything in this sport, it’s ultimately about the tennis. Here’s what Serena thinks:
“I think my game matches up well against her. I love playing her.”
And Williams is right. She’s a horrible matchup for Sharapova.
The two key areas where the imbalances can be seen are the serve/return-of-serve dynamic and the ability to defend. Serena owns the greatest serve in women’s tennis history, and even though Sharapova is a very capable returner, she just can’t find ways to impede Serena from dominating her service games. Sharapova herself seemed destined to own one of the great serves in women’s tennis, but a string of shoulder injuries got in the way. With this in mind, and given that Serena Williams is an all-time great returner of serve, Sharapova finds herself in the awkward position of knowing that every single one of her service games will be an absolute battle, where every serve has to be excellent in order to survive. In the seven of their matches with available stats, Serena has failed to reach 50 percent of return points won only once (and she still won that match with a thumping 6-3, 6-2 scoreline in just 73 minutes).
In terms of defending, few can match Williams; she’s always been an explosive athlete. On the other hand, Sharapova stands at a lanky 6-foot-2, and even though she’s made significant strides with her movement, she doesn’t have those quick bursts of speed that allow Serena to be better positioned for shots on the run, or get to nearly impossible shots that force opponents to hit an extra ball just when they thought the point was over. Sharapova somewhat compensates for her lack of speed with her longer reach and good instincts, but that doesn’t come close to bridging the gap with a great defender like Williams.
The ability to defend is crucial, since both women are blessed with loads of power off their forehand and backhand wings. Neither waits too long before unloading at the earliest possible opening, so Serena’s ability to not only stay in points longer, as well as her ability turn defense into offense with her phenomenal shots on the run, gives her a significant edge in most rallies.
Can Sharapova overcome all of the above in the Australian Final? The immediate answer is no. It makes perfect sense for this matchup to be so one-sided. And even if Sharapova is playing at a very high level, it doesn’t help that Williams herself seems to be getting better and better with every passing round, even putting some odd coughing issues behind her.
Still, life teaches us often that there is no such thing as certainty. Plus, the Australian Open has been a friendly place for those oppressed tennis players looking for a dramatic change in fortune against specific opponents. Take what’s happened in Melbourne recently: First, Andreas Seppi got his first win over Roger Federer in 11 tries, then Tomas Berdych beat Rafael Nadal after eight years of constant torment. Berdych avoided an Open-era record 18 straight defeats with the win.
Anything can happen on a given day, and that’s what Sharapova has to tell herself. That’s how sport works, and that’s why we watch. She has to pitch a perfect game in order to have a chance. Anything less will result in defeat, and thus lay bare the main reason why Serena so nonchalantly claims she loves playing her supposed rival: because she almost always wins.