The purple Crandon Park courts aren't quite as forgiving as the red carpet rolled out for the player party on Biscayne Boulevard, but when world No. 1 Serena Williams faces second-ranked Maria Sharapova in a final pulsating with star power, all the elements for a photo finish seem to be in place.
Start with the two most famous female athletes in the world, who grew up sharpening their skills on South Florida courts and have grown into global brands and future Hall of Famers. Add in the allure of Williams playing for a record-setting sixth Sony Open Tennis crown, and Sharapova pursuing her first Miami championship while trying to join Steffi Graf and Kim Clijsters as the third woman to sweep Indian Wells and Miami in succession. Mix in the fact both women are riding winning streaks, they've combined to win three of the last four Grand Slam titles, and are both at their best playing bold power-based tennis—and get ready for an exciting baseline bash, right?
Put down the party favors. The sight of Sharapova on the opposite side of the net brings out buzz-kill efficiency in Serena.
"I just feel like I love playing her. I love seeing her on the opposite side, because she just brings out a good game,” Williams said. "I just like the challenge of playing someone who has made history and who is doing so well. I just want to play well against a great player.”
Williams has ruthlessly shredded any evidence of rivalry between the pair in sweeping 10 consecutive wins against Sharapova to take a commanding 11-2 lead in their head-to-head series. In recent meetings, Maria has found winning sets against Serena is a task as daunting as winning a water fight with a waterfall. Williams has surrendered just 21 games in their last five matches, including a 6-0, 6-1 thrashing with the career Golden Slam on the line in the Olympic gold-medal match last July. Sharapova has not beaten Williams in nearly nine years, and has not managed to take even a set from her nemesis since the 2008 Charleston quarterfinals.
This is an unsettling match for Sharapova because she can't play tennis on her terms. She commands the center of the court and plays proactive tennis against most women, but she's often forced to play reactive points while pushed to the edges against the 15-time Grand Slam champion.
"She's a tremendous athlete, has so much power, and [she's] a confidence player, as well," Sharapova said. "So if you have a few easy games where, you know, you're not stepping in, not playing the way you should be, she takes really good advantage of it."
Rays of hope arise from Sharapova's recent form. The Indian Wells champion is riding an 11-match winning streak, collecting a career-best 22 straight sets in that span, and she crushed former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic, 6-2, 6-1, in the semifinals to reach the final for the fifth time.
This match-up reminds me a bit of Serena vs. Lindsay Davenport in that Sharapova, like Davenport, is a ferocious flat hitter who is at her best playing unrelenting offense. Sharapova is skilled at opening the court with down-the-line drives, but the competitive quandary she faces with Serena is that Williams has a faster first step, is more skilled at hitting short-angle shots, and is typically so much more accurate and explosive hitting on the run. Even when Sharapova opens the court, she sometimes sets herself up for misery in creating angles Williams exploits.
Davenport, a former No. 1 in doubles as well as singles, had the net skills to explore other options when getting beat from the baseline. While Sharapova owns a lethal swing volley, she is not as comfortable hitting a conventional volley, rarely hits overheads, and doesn't vary the spins and speeds of her shots, which means she must take—and make—the first strike in baseline exchanges. Don't expect any surprises from Sharapova, who knows one gear—power-baseline tennis.
These are two of the most aggressive returners on tour, so connecting on the first serve and defending the second serve is vital. Sharapova can get skittish on her second serve facing Williams' menacing return game. Serena's significantly lower ball toss means her serve should withstand the turbulence of the sometimes windy Crandon Park stadium better than Maria's serve, which starts with a sky-high ball toss.
It's unlikely, but not inconceivable, that Williams could get tight. She looked distracted and sluggish trailing Dominika Cibulkova, 6-2, 4-1, before rallying to reach the quarterfinals, drifted a bit in her 6-3, 7-6 (5) quarterfinal victory over Li Na, and has reportedly been pained by a hip issue. But she dominated defending champion Agnieszka Radwanska in the semifinals and the five-time champion is still the most imposing server and most convincing closer in the game. Serena has won a tournament-record 60 matches, often brings her best against top players (Williams owns an 83-30 record vs. Top 5 opponents—the best winning percentage among active players), and craves pace—and should plenty of it from Sharapova.
In a final where the first-strike will be critical, look for Serena to have the last word and reign as Queen of the Keys for a record sixth time.
The Pick: Serena Williams in two sets.