ISTANBUL—Maria Sharapova and her camp have been saying for years that every time she matches up with Serena Williams, the American produces a lights-out serving performance.
That was once again the case in Williams’ 6-4, 6-3 victory over the Russian in the final of the WTA Championships, as Sharapova did not hold a break point in the match and never got a handle on Serena’s serve, despite a slow hard-court that mitigated its impact, if ever slightly. On the few occasions when Sharapova reached 30-30 or deuce, Serena came up with excellent serves and, if needed, a perfectly stuck groundstoke winner.
Take the eighth game of the second set. Sharapova had done a pretty good job on her own serve, but was broken in the first game of the set by a vicious backhand cross-court winner. But with the crowd desperately trying to propel Sharapova to third set, at 30-30, they sensed an opportunity. That lasted a millisecond, as Serena boomed an ace. Sharapova lifted her chin up and crunched a good backhand cross-court return off a second serve to get to deuce, but Serena took a deep breath, hammered a forehand cross-court winner, and proceeded to end the game on a high-hopping, 110 M.P.H. kick serve out wide that Sharapova barely got her racket on. In doing so, Serena had squashed all hopes of a comeback.
Sharapova’s fans have endlessly discussed under what conditions that their favorite player could upset Williams, but the most plausible one, at least this year, is that Serena cannot be at her best. That may be asking a lot, because Serena is far a more lethal and efficient server, moves faster, is a better volleyer, and is a more committed and steadier player when forced to go on defense. Even if you concede that Sharapova is just as mentally sound, returns just as well (which is questionable), and is equally as forceful and accurate off the ground (on both wings), there is no category where you can point to where she is clearly better than Williams, except for producing a new and popular candy line.
That’s why Serena came into the match with 9-2 record against Sharapova. That, and if you buy into the theory from Sharapova’s camp that Serena has disliked Maria since she stunned Williams as a 17-year-old in the 2004 Wimbledon final, becoming the sports’ ‘it’ girl and taking attention way from the attention-loving American. As a result, when Williams is playing Sharapova, she immediately swoops in for the kill. So they say.
Sharapova has made of career of launching devastating second-serve returns, but when it comes to reading Williams’ first serve, it’s a different story. In fact, no player on tour can seem to get a good read as to where Williams’ forays are headed these days. She has the most natural motion on tour, and as her coach Patrick Mouratoglou said later, she tosses the ball in the same spot every time, and at the last second can maneuver her wrist to place the ball anywhere she likes. When asked later whether she found it hard to read Serena’s serves, Sharapova cracked that if she didn’t, she might have managed a break point during the match.
Mouratoglou also pointed out that both womens' strengths lie in their serves and returns, and he believes that Serena is a more accurate returner. That proved true in the final game of the match. On match point, Serena took a serve to her forehand and, like she has done so many times before in big events, smoked a forehand return down the line to collect the title. Serena looked rusty to begin the week, but at tournament’s end, she looked just as good as she did in winning Wimbledon, the Olympics, and the U.S. Open. She finished the match with 40 winners (11 aces) and just 14 unforced errors, compared to Sharapova’s 13 winners and 12 unforced errors. That’s world class stuff.
Sharapova will head to Prague on Monday for an exhibition against Petra Kvitova, then head to the beach for a Strawberry daiquiri before she and her team begin to wrack their brains about how she is going to conquer Williams. Serena is headed to Africa to put on some clinics, and after a small break will make a change in her off-season routine: She’ll train with for the Australian summer with Mouratoglou on the cozy island of Mauritius. She’s looking forward to it so much, she said, that she bought a bathing suit for the trip three months ago.
Serena has been embracing life changes this year, but one thing has remained the same: When the 31-year-old is healthy and focused, she’s still the best player in the world. The other top women who watched her wipe out the field in Istanbul this week would have few problems agreeing with that.