Good Housekeeping

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MIAMI, Fla.—It looked like it couldn’t get much worse for Serena Williams. She trailed Maria Sharapova by a set, and the Russian had just broken her previous service game. The score was 2-2, and Williams stood at the service notch on the north end of the stadium in Crandon Park, the sun so dazzling that she was making test tosses of the ball as Sharapova prepared to receive.

Williams tossed the ball three, four, times. Hit it? She couldn’t even catch it consistently; during the fourth dress rehearsal, the ball glanced off her hand and dribbled to the court. She tried to tap it up with her racquet face. The ball squirted away. Williams scowled. All along, she’d been bearish, undemonstrative to the point of appearing like her mind was elsewhere. It looked like she might just drop her racquet and walk away.

Sharapova hunched down into her receiving position; it was time to bury the dagger to the hilt. To beat Serena. To become only the third woman in WTA history to complete the Indian Wells-Miami double. (The other two? Steffi Graf and Kim Clijsters).

Serena tossed the ball for real—but caught it again. She muttered, “Sorry.” It looked like it couldn’t get much worse for Williams. It got worse for Williams.

Sharapova broke her again, to take a 3-2 lead, and suddenly Williams’ eight-year, 10-match winning streak seemed in serious jeopardy. But as anyone in tennis can tell you, just when it looks like it can’t get any worse for Serena, the immediate future has a strange way of turning as rosy as a south Florida sunset.

“I felt like I was just making so many errors,” Williams said of that juncture. “And I just was like, ‘Serena, are you really going to get to the final and not play up to your potential?’ I don’t think I was as energized as I could be. I didn’t think I had enough energy. . . I was just like. . . ‘Conserve your energy and try and relax and play better.’

Was it too little, too late? Sharapova was just three games from the finish line and utterly in control of the match. But then she faltered—with considerable help from Williams, who suddenly found the energy to hit a pair of groundstroke winners (one forehand, one backhand), and then a forcing backhand that Sharapova couldn’t handle.

It was 0-40, and that finish line suddenly looked like it had receded to the far horizon. Sharapova made a forehand error on the next point to hand over a break. Neither player knew, or might have guessed, that Sharapova had won her last game.

Thinking back on the game that opened the floodgates which resulted in a 4-6, 6-3, 6-0 Williams triumph, Sharapova said:

“After I broke her, I lost that next game pretty quickly—I think it was a 40-15 game (sic). So that was pretty fast, but I thought I still had opportunities to get back in the set at 3-4. I was up 40-15 and Love-30 (on her serve) in the next games. Those are the games that you really need, to keep challenging out there and keep being in them, because those are the chances that you will have and that you will have to take if you want to win the match.”

Well, yes. And that’s the way Sharapova must look at it. On the other hand, how can you rationalize being up a set and a break, and then losing 10 straight games? It’s unheard of, for a player of Sharapova’s caliber.

To her credit, Sharapova wouldn’t blame it on fatigue, even though she was riding an 11-match, 23-set winning streak and trying to win back-to-back combined event titles. “I feel fine,” she said. “I’m very happy, very fortunate that I’ve been able to play probably the most that any player has played in the last month. I have had a really great month and a great tournament here. I think I can only take positives out of it, really.”

The only hint of what might lay in store as the match began on this bright day was Williams’ continuing history of, well, poor housekeeping. She’s been given to merely answering “present” at the coin toss, and soon thereafter finding herself deep in a hole of her own digging. It happened again this week, in her third-round match with Dominika Cibulkova.

It looked like the same thing was about to go down again in the early stages of this match, but against a far more capable player. Each woman held serve to start, but the third game turned into a bitter tug-of-war that included eight deuces. As Williams said later, “I think it was almost 20 minutes before the game was over, and I thought, ‘That’s sometimes a first set for me. I need to win this game.’ I like to win those games—or at least try.”

That game ended on script, with a Williams hold. But her energy level didn’t benefit from any adrenalin rush; in fact, Williams didn’t grunt, scream, thrust a fist, or shout, ‘Come on!’ until she won the fourth game of the final set—long after the most critical moments in the match.

Williams was broken when she next served in the first set, and again in the ninth game, enabling Sharapova to serve it out. The No. 3 seed did it convincingly, without allowing a point. She sustained her momentum as the second set got underway.

“Maria played really the best I have seen her play,” Serena said afterward. “I think she was moving unbelievable, and she was hitting winners from everywhere. You know, I think after the first set I had over 20 unforced errors. I just thought, why am I playing like this? Yeah, it definitely is a way to be like, ‘How did I end up winning this?’”

That question is bound to haunt Sharapova in the wake of the fightback Williams mounted. But Sharapova met the question, and all its implications, with her best and bravest face. It has to be dispiriting to be playing so well, to be so far up, and then to lose the last 10 games. But instead of appearing dejected or making excuses, Sharapova said, “I certainly put myself in a much better position (to win) today.”

Sharapova won’t say it, and at this point it would be borderline rude to bring it up in conversation with her. But the reality is that she desperately needs to log at least a few wins if she wants to be seen even as second among equals (meaning champions), even in this small historical window. Williams dominates her the way Sharapova dominates everyone else. Which makes Sharapova an “everyone else” to Williams.

When someone asked Williams why she seems to enjoy beating up on Sharapova, she replied: “I like to play anyone that’s a top player. As you can see today, I feel like she lifted her level, and (I like to play) any player (who) makes me have to lift my level and be like, ‘Okay, what can I do to win this? What can I do to get better? Can I get better?’ For me, that answer is always ‘yes’ and I like figuring out how to do it. It’s not just her. It’s anyone that’s a top player. I just feel like I want to do the best that I can.”

So Sharapova will continue to play Jimmy Connors to Serena’s Bjorn Borg. You remember, don’t you, how superior a competitor Connors was, but how utterly Borg dominated him once he matured into a complete player? You may even remember that when it looked like Borg might complete a calendar year Grand Slam, Connors vowed to “follow him to the ends of the earth” in order to prevent that from happening.

Sharapova left Miami defiant, in a quiet way. “I was playing well, but not well enough to win the match, obviously. But, it was a step in the right direction, and there’s no doubt that we’ll be playing many more times. There’s no doubt I’ll be able to beat her.”

To which Serena might say, “See you at the ends of the earth.”

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