Miami: S. Williams d. Sharapova

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Serena Williams, magnificent in Miami once again, joined the ranks of Evert, Graf, and Navratilova—players who have won the same title six times—with today’s performance. Recovering after dropping her first set to Maria Sharapova since 2008 and falling a break behind in the second set, Williams raised her level and delivered a crushing third-set display to win, 4-6, 6-3, 6-0.

Sharapova produced some of her finest tennis and came close to her first victory over Williams since 2005, but it’s a testament to both Williams’ penchant for resurgent victories and the mismatch between the two players that even when Sharapova was leading by a set and a break, the match never felt anything else but in the balance.

The Russian came out with a clear gameplan: Target Williams’ forehand as much as possible during the rallies, serve to the body to jam her up, and attack the second serve to the limits of her considerable returning abilities. It was simple but well thought-out and perfectly executed for much of the first two sets, reaping immediate rewards when Williams’ second service game of the match turned into an eight-deuce mini-epic in which the American had to save three break points. Williams immediately started to try to play up the line on her forehand in order to get cross-court exchanges on her backhand, but that shot wasn’t as reliable as usual, giving Sharapova time and space to dance around her backhand and attack with her forehand. It got her the break, and while Sharapova pressed in the next game and gave it straight back, Williams double-faulted herself back into trouble at 4-4 and gave up another break with a forehand error.

Sharapova served out the set at love before Williams bounced back with an imperious hold and broke Sharapova to lead 2-0. But instead of forging ahead with that advantage, Serena double-faulted, then made two errors off magnificent Sharapova returns before netting a forehand to bring the set back to level terms. When Sharapova hit a beautiful (and duly applauded) lob over Williams’ head, then broke at love to lead 3-2 after a disastrous Williams service game, that elusive third victory over her opponent must have appeared tantalizingly close.

It would prove Sharapova’s high point of the match, however. Serving into the sun which had so bothered Williams the game before, Sharapova was promptly broken back to love. At 3-3, Williams showed the first signs of dealing summarily with Sharapova’s returns and of finding range with her cross-court forehand. That shot, starting to click, enabled Williams to stretch Sharapova out wide on the forehand side. It was a decisive advantage when coupled with the first cracks appearing in Sharapova’s serve, and Williams broke to 5-3, then served out the set.

Williams’ return now made its own return, and suddenly Sharapova was under the kind of sustained pressure in all areas of the game which Serena had not been able to muster earlier in the match. It told, quickly and decisively. With Williams back to the kind of form where she strikes dismissive winners seemingly at will, Sharapova fell behind 0-1, then 0-3 after consecutive double faults.

Whatever had been bothering Williams earlier in the match, she raised her level and made Sharapova’s challenge seem as insubstantial as it had earlier appeared formidable. Great tennis, such as that played by Sharapova for the first set and a half, can’t be erased, but it can be comprehensively consigned to a distant memory. The last 10 games, all won by Williams as she stormed to victory and her sixth Miami title, did just that.

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