A Competition, or a Coronation?

Thursday, June 06, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

Watching Serena Williams flatten Sara Errani in their semifinal on Thursday, and thinking back over Serena's head-to-head history against Maria Sharapova, you might wonder whether a preview is even necessary in the case of this year’s French Open women’s final. You might be right, too—Serena vs. Maria, despite being No. 1 vs. No. 2, has the makings of an epic blowout that renders all analysis moot. But they’re still going to play the match, so I will still do the preview. And I will start by saying that stranger things than a Sharapova upset have happened. I can't recall any right at this moment, but still, there must have been something...

*****

(1) Serena Williams vs. (2) Maria Sharapova
Williams leads their head to head 13-2, and leads 3-0 on clay

The head-to-head record, while one-sided, doesn’t give you a full idea of how thoroughly Serena has dominated this match-up. She's lost to Sharapova twice in 2004, and hasn’t let it happen again. Since 2007, she’s allowed her just two sets in 11 matches. 

Why has this happened? Sharapova is a career Grand Slammer, after all. First, the two women play a similar attack-at-all-times game, but Serena is better in every aspect. She’s much faster, her serve is more reliable and more of a weapon, and she hits as hard if not harder from the ground. Second, and perhaps more important, is the psychological element. A lot of people believe Serena is still exacting revenge on Sharapova for upsetting her in the 2004 Wimbledon final. I’m sure Serena hasn’t forgotten that loss, but from what she says after her matches with Sharapova these days, her dominance is also the product of respect. Serena says she’s extra careful not to give anything away against Sharapova, because she knows she won’t give up, and that she's good enough to make a run. In other words, Serena gives her respect so she can keep getting revenge.

Sharapova admitted today that her record against Serena bothers her, and that she’ll have to try something new, because nothing has worked in their recent matches. She can take at least some hope from her performance against Serena in Miami in April. Sharapova won the first set and appeared in command in the second set as well. Then Serena stopped making errors and won the last 10 games of the match. But for the first time in a long time, Sharapova did show the capability to control their rallies and make Serena worry and work. Afterward, Maria claimed to be making progress. But their last match, on clay in Madrid, was another step back, as Serena jumped on her right away and gave up just five games.

The match-up, the surface, and even their current form are all working against Sharapova—she beat Victoria Azarenka on Thursday, but she threw in 11 double-faults (along with 12 aces) along the way, and struggled to close out the match from 5-2 up in the third set. To win, or at least to be allowed into the match, Sharapova has to hope that Serena begins to beat herself. That’s nearly what happened in her quarterfinal against Svetlana Kuznetsova. As expected, Serena won the first set easily, but when it wasn’t quite as easy at the start of the second, she got more frustrated and nervous than necessary. Before that match, Serena hadn’t lost more than three games in a set in close to a month; it must have been unsettling for her to meet any kind of resistance. When she stopped dominating Kuznetsova, Serena became overwrought and acted like disaster was around the corner. But she eventually calmed down and turned things back around.

Even against Errani, it looked like it could happen again. After winning the first set in 21 minutes, Serena lost a couple of points in her first service game of the second. When she evened that game up, she fist-pumped as if she had just won a key point in a third-set tiebreaker. But Errani couldn't do enough to make Serena nervous for long, and the moment passed.

I don’t expect that to happen in the final. Serena will be the overwhelming favorite and will likely feel that pressure, but one reason she has been so good against Sharapova is that she hasn’t panicked against her—she was the overwhelming favorite in their Olympic gold medal match last year, and she lost just one game. But Maria should remember that even if she’s blown out in the first set, if she can put together a game or two early in the second, she could find herself back in it. If Serena gives her a moment of vulnerability, Sharapova, like Kuznetsova and unlike Errani, is capable of grabbing it. That's about all she can hope for in this one.

The Pick: Williams in two sets

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