As different as the players and rules of engagement were in the Doha semifinals, there was one overarching similarity between Victoria Azarenka’s win over Agnieszka Radwanska and Serena Williams’ 6-3, 6-2 destruction of Maria Sharapova in one hour and 13 minutes in the second match: Each victorious player was simply better at the things that both she and her opponent do well.
In the case of Williams’ win, those similarities are the big serve, the return, and the ability to dictate from the baseline. Sharapova is better than most of her rivals at those specific tasks, with the glaring exception of Williams. That explains why Williams has dominated her so thoroughly in recent years; this was Serena’s 10th consecutive win over Sharapova, who hasn’t even won a set from her rival in almost four years.
Today, it was more of the same, even though Sharapova hit just four double faults (the same number as Serena) and made six fewer unforced errors (22-16).
Sharapova fell behind by a break early in the match, and Williams almost snuffed out the first set with a break point at 2-5. But Sharapova recovered to hold—only to stand by, helpless, as Williams stepped up and served out the set with ease.
On the changeover between sets, Sharapova’s coach Thomas Hogstedt encouraged her to watch for the big serve down the service “T,” serve to Williams’ body, and to go out there looking confident, aggressive and positive—whereupon the Russian went out and promptly fell behind 15-40 on serve, a position from which it doesn’t make much sense to look “aggressive” or even “confident.”
But to her credit, Sharapova sucked it up and got back to deuce with a forehand winner and a service winner. When she saved the game with an ace, she yelled, “Come on!” Hogstedt probably was pleased, if not yet tabulating his bonus money.
In fact, in the very next game Sharapova got to 30-all against Williams’ serve for just the third time in the match, and ultimately clawed her way to her first break point. But a fierce backhand winner, a smash, and a backhand error by Sharapova enabled Williams to hold.
Then Sharapova’s ju-ju ran out.
While Sharapova hit only four double faults, two of those were in that next game, at 1-1. The second of them left Williams looking at break point, which she seized when she outdueled Sharapova in a baseline rally, forcing a backhand error. The break left Sharapova looking dispirited; what little wind she’d gathered in her sails vanished.
The women held over the next three games, so Sharapova remained within striking distance of the woman who will become the oldest No. 1 in history of the WTA rankings on Monday. But when she served at 2-4, Williams made her last surge. A smash winner brought her to break point again at 15-40, and Serena needed just one break point to convert. In yet another high-velocity rally, Williams again forced a backhand error.
By then, the most intriguing dimension of their similarity—the commitment to play from the baseline with go-for-broke aggression—had once again been resolved in favor of Williams. She can simply bully the bully; call it something like living and dying by the sword.
Sharapova would have one more chance. At 30-0 in the final game, she hit a gorgeous service return winner, and Williams followed with a pair of double faults. Suddenly, it was break point (just the second of the match for Sharapova). But Williams won another rally, banged out her sixth ace, and watched Sharapova flub a forehand to advance to the final, where she’ll finally get a crack at lame-duck No. 1 Azarenka.
Like Radwanska, Sharapova will have to find a way to go on, not becoming too demoralized by the fact that someone out there has her number and isn’t about to give it up.