The Eleven-Year Itch

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PARIS —Shortly after she won her 16th Grand Slam title at the French Open today, Serena Williams was asked to compare herself to the 20-year old ingénue who won this title unexpectedly over her sister Venus Williams in 2002.

“I prefer the Serena of 2002 because she still has a whole career ahead of her,” the 31-year old replied, quickly adding, “This one does too, but maybe not another 15 years worth.”

I can think of many people who might breath a sigh of relief at the second half of that answer, chief among them Maria Sharapova, a four-time Grand Slam champion herself, and a 6-4, 6-4 loser to Williams on the red clay of Court Philippe Chatrier today. Sharapova is just 26, and now trails in their head-to-head with Williams, 2-14. Age appears to be the only thing on her side.

On the other hand, after suffering a number of humiliating losses, Sharapova was able to make today’s score-line look respectable, and she extended the match to one hour, 46 minutes. Some people concluded that this loss was a “moral victory” for Sharapova. That may be accurate, but it’s extraordinary that something like that can be said of a Grand Slam final. Wasn’t it just yesterday that no less an authority than Rafael Nadal remarked:

“That's the good thing about sport. That it is real. Everybody likes sport because what you see is what it is. One win; another lose. Sometimes one; sometimes the other. But is real, and that's the beautiful thing.”

The problem with the matches between these two women is that the “sometimes the other” doesn’t apply to Sharapova. Commiseration with her is a comment on the enormous gulf that exists between Sharapova, the second best player in the WTA side, and Williams. It’s presently so wide that it sends us looking for something — anything — to say about the state of the non-rivalry. It takes us away from that “real” territory, into one of equivocation and qualification. Any port in a storm right?

Sharapova herself liked the “moral victory” theme well enough. She said after the match, “No, I don't think that's black and white. You can be really down about it (losing).  And I am, because I'm a competitor and I'm a fighter.  But that's the feeling that ultimately will make you work harder and make you think a little bit. It gives you more determination.  So, yeah, I hope that that's what I take away from the match. I will take a few little positives from this match.”

The air was thick and humid, with the oppressive sun just a broad, yellow smear behind the clouds that threatened rain as the two women strolled out, accompanied by ball boys bearing the familiar finalists’ bouquets. One of them would end up looking more like an arrangement in a funeral parlor but as Nadal reminded us, “that’s  a beautiful thing.”

Sharapova struggled right from the start, falling behind love-40 in the first game. Before that game was even finished, Sharapova was already making melodramatic gestures. She shrieked “come on” and went into a spasm like someone who’d just been gut shot as she clenched her fist. I’m not sure what such demonstrations accomplish, other than letting the world know just how desperate your situation is at 0-0, 30-40 in the first set. After the match she denied that she was trying to send Serena a message (“I don’t really think she cares what’s going on my side,” she would say afterward), but that aside, what could anyone read into those gestures, coming at that time, but something like desperation?

Sharapova fought off those three break points (and another later in the game) and then broke Williams. She climbed to 40-15 in the third game with ace and another outburst, but when Williams reeled her in and broke Sharapova’s serve to draw even on serve at 1-2, she sure acted as if she’d been receiving those signals all along. Williams’s momentum carried her toward to net when she hit a winning smash for the break; she threw her own fist in the air, glared at Sharapova, and paid the compliment of quoting her: “Come on!”

This is all a little high-school confidential-ish, I know, but I go into it for two reasons. First, because all this yelling and fist-pumping gets tiresome. Second and more important, it’s just one of the many ways Sharapova gives herself away in a manner that would make a serious student of body language cringe. At other points in the match, she was unable to hide her disappointment at missing one of the scant opportunities she did have. After the error, she allowed her arms to drop and her shoulders to droop. She obviously felt deflated. Surely someone with as much pride as Sharapova knows better, so take it as a sign of just how demoralizing it is to face Williams and that blizzard of aces and winners that regularly pour from her racquet.

The dynamic when these two women meet is intriguing. Usually, Sharapova is the aggressor. Unlike Williams, she won’t even utter a “sorry” when she takes back a serve toss. She also ratchets up the already deafening shriek that accompanies every shot (Williams was utterly silent through the first few games, but apparently couldn’t resist challenging her rival in the yelling competition), and throws in all those fist pumps.

By contrast, Williams embarks on the test with something that looks very much like disdain. She moves extra slowly, almost reluctantly — as if she doesn’t take her task all that seriously. Of course, that’s not true, and some of it can be put down to anxiety. As she would say later, “I was so nervous today. I’m usually not this nervous before a match. I was not myself this match at all. But I’m glad I got through that one because I’ve played nervous before and I’ve lost a few times. I was really happy to win this one.”

That might be difficult to swallow, and let’s remember that Williams’s diplomatic skills have improved noticeably. She was more convincing when she said that she also felt a lot of anxiety coming into the tournament. “I think in the back of my head, yes. I mean I played great last year, too. I won the same tournaments. And I was like. . . I just want to win one match here. If I can just win one match, if I can get a good first round, good second round, if I could get through these I felt like I could do a lot better. I actually got a little bit tight in my first-round match, even though I won oh and one or something like that. I just got tight and I told my mom afterwards, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I’m too old for this! Like I mean, I’ve got to find a solution.’ We talked about it and I got over it.”

It often takes a little time for Williams to get fully invested in a match, and when she did it spelled doom for Sharapova. That moment of commitment seemed to come in that third game, and Williams followed the break with a strong hold and another break that put her up 4-2.

Sharapova did well to hold the next game, and a ray of light broke over her landscape when she broke Serena to level it at 4-all. But Sharapova couldn’t hold serve as Williams won two rallies and secured the break with massive cross-court forehand blast.

Williams held to win the set, but Sharapova got a nice little boost out of holding the first game of the second, in which Williams had five break points. But one easy Williams hold later, Sharapova was in trouble again — and this time she wouldn’t escape.

Up to this point, Sharapova had endured familiar, harrowing adventures each time she served the ball. But for a change she put in her first serve — no let, no caught-toss dry run, no dodgy call and do-over  — and Williams returned it. Caught off guard, perhaps, but such a routine exchange, Sharapova mangled a forehand to give Williams a 2-1 lead.

Suddenly, Williams began to put on a powerful serving demonstration. She also smoothed out some of the wrinkles in her rally game. She would lose all of three points on her serve in the second set, and popped out six aces, pulling away from and ultimately overwhelming Sharapova as she held onto that early break and served it out. Williams hit three of those six aces in the final game, and said of that moment:

“Well, honestly, at that point I was just so nervous.  I thought, I'm not going to be able to hit ground strokes. No joke. I really thought that, and as you saw the one ground stroke I did hit went like 100 feet out. I thought to myself, ‘Look, Serena, you've just got to hit aces.  That's your only choice.’ ”

The thought is one thing, the act another. Commenting on that superior serve, Sharapova said: “We know she's going to be able to hit a big serve.  I mean, I think if I was built like Serena I hope I'd be able to hit a big serve like that, too.”

It was the cheap shot of a disappointed loser. For as Williams said later, “I don’t know, I'm a lot smaller then Maria, so I don't know how I'm able to serve so big.”

It was just another point in which Williams got the best of Sharapova today, and this one wasn’t a mere “moral victory” either.

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