Madrid: S. Williams d. Sharapova

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It’s quite clear that Serena Williams loves to play—er, make that beat on—Maria Sharapova. What’s most striking is that she does it in such a cold, merciless, tight-lipped fashion. You can almost feel the scorn dripping from Serena’s mind as she squints and stares across the net at Sharapova, as if she were some kind of bug.

There’s some poetic justice in this: It’s hard not to notice that this is very much like the treatment Sharapova inflicts on every WTA player but her nemesis, Serena. All of that makes Williams’ mastery of Sharapova that much more striking. How can someone who relies so much on intimidation be intimidated as easily as Sharapova?

We witnessed another classic example of the dynamic today in Madrid, as the younger and deadlier of the Williams sisters laid yet another contemptuous beating on Sharapova, dominating her in an hour and 18 minutes, 6-1, 6-4.

If you think I’m overstating the case here, just roll back the tape and check the post-match ritual handshake/air-kiss. Had Sharapova needed further motivation, keep in mind that she had worked her way close enough to Williams in the rankings to ensure that today’s winner would own the top spot tomorrow.

Right from the get-go, it was clear—yet again—that Williams was not only willing to hit the cover off the ball each time it came her way, but that she would hit it with particular relish when it was a service return. The combination of Sharapova’s often dodgy, double-fault prone serve and Williams’ untrammeled service return is deadly, and it really scripted the first set of this match.

Sharapova served first, won the first point, and promptly delivered an ominous double fault. Williams won the next two points as well, bang-banging out unreturnable returns that underscored perhaps the most striking of Sharapova’s vulnerabilities—after that somewhat erratic serve: She simply couldn’t react fast enough on a consistent basis to Serena’s sharp returns, partly because Sharapova has a slow first step, and partly because of the quality of those returns.

Thus, Sharapova found herself down two break points in the very first game. She saved one thanks to a Williams service-return error, but she was broken when she failed to stay in a brief rally and drove a forehand into the net. The rout was underway. In the blink of an eye, it was 4-0. Sharapova had won all of six points in the match.

The long fifth game was like the entire match-up between these two women compressed into single game, but for the most important detail—Sharapova managed to win the game. It featured game-saving aces, game-wasting double faults, and groundstroke errors by Sharapova, and bold service returns and placements by Williams. But after five deuces and a handful of perilous escapes, Sharapova finally got on the scoreboard, 1-4.

But the tough hold did little to improve her overall fortunes. After a lightning-fast Williams hold, Sharapova swiftly fell behind 15-40 and lost the game—and set—on a Williams forehand service return winner.

The second set began with an odd and telling twist. Sharapova came out, fresh and invigorated, and looked like nothing less than a different woman. She broke Williams swiftly and held her one serve with ease. After another Williams hold, Sharapova won a four-point service game. Then, in the fifth game, Sharapova threatened to add a second break that would virtually guarantee her the set—and us a match.

Williams, serving at 30-15, answered a Sharapova service return right down the middle with a desultory backhand into the net. Suddenly it was 30-all: Would Sharapova find a way to break, add to her confidence, and force a third set?

Not so fast, Williams seemed to say. The game went to deuce, and Williams managed the hold and stay within shouting distance when she won the longest—and finest—rally of the match with a down-the-line forehand winner. Failing to capitalize on that opportunity disproportionately disappointed Sharapova, it seemed, and that “new woman” disappeared as quickly as she’d popped up, replaced by the familiar woe-is-me Maria. She grimaced and struggled in the next game and broke herself with a double fault for 3-all.

Dead even, Williams wasted no time holding serve for 4-3. Playing from behind once again, Sharapova then survived a break point to hold, but Williams’ next service game flew by, and there was Sharapova, suddenly staring down the barrel again. A pair of wretched errors—one a double fault, natch—left Sharapova down 0-40, and she drove the last nail into her own coffin with a rally-ending, match-point error.

Stat of the Match: Sharapova won just 19 of the 36 first-serve points she dished up, a dismal 52 percent conversion rate for a woman whose serve is a major weapon despite her tendency to double fault.

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