MELBOURNE—It’s one thing for Maria Sharapova to lay down double double bagels on Olga Puchkova and Misaki Doi in her first two rounds. It’s another to take Venus Williams out of a match from the first game and never let her in. Yes, Maria really is playing this well at the moment. Playing so well that she could win the first set over a seven-time Grand Slam champ in 29 minutes while making 44 percent of her first serves and hitting just six winners.
The stats didn’t reflect it—she would finish with 17 winners and 19 unforced errors—but it was a comprehensive, high-quality win for Sharapova. Perhaps most impressive was her return. She knocked Venus’s serves back solidly and with depth, swinging the rallies in her favor immediately. Sharapova attacked intelligently, which she usually does, but she also scrambled better than we expect. She came up with a few brilliantly unlikely defensive winners on the run.
As for Venus, whether serving or returning, she was on her heels. She opened the match with a double fault, was broken in the first game, and was down 0-4 within 20 minutes. Williams made just 58 percent of her first serves, committed 26 errors against 10 winners, and managed to get to the net just six times, something she had done three times as often in her last match. Venus looked, for one of the few times in her career, a step slow.
Yet this is Venus Wiliams, and she’ll never drop her head or give in, whatever the score. Down 1-6, 0-3, she still defended and retrieved and hung by her fingernails long enough to make Sharapova nervous. But when Venus did finally get a chance, at 1-3, 15-30 and 30-30 on Sharapova's serve, she made routine forehand errors.
Sharapova’s sharpness and level of play should make the rest of the women take notice—she has run through this event before, in 2008. Her 6-1, 6-3 win was an all-around one, but it was also spiced with the spectacular. A two-point combination early in the second set, in which she knocked off a backhand return winner and followed it with an even more jaw-dropping forehand return, sticks out. As does her ace to end it, and the quintuple fist-pump that followed. Venus certainly noticed that as she walked to the net; their handshake was a chilly one. Whatever the score was, and however far she was ahead, Sharapova, who said she was looking forward to facing Venus as soon as she saw the draw, was going to savor this one.