Stillborn Rivalry

by: Peter Bodo | March 27, 2014

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MIAMI, Fla.—Pity poor Maria Sharapova. While most of us are doomed to certitude on just two fronts, she must face the music on three: Death, taxes, and Serena Williams.

Today in the Sony Open semifinals, top-seeded Williams improved her already spectacular record against her fellow career Grand Slammer to 15-2 with an entertaining if not particularly dramatic 6-4, 6-3 win. Sharapova’s last triumph in this “rivalry” was back in the fall of 2004, when the top box office attraction at the movies was The Incredibles.

Since then, it’s been Serena who’s been straining credibility—especially when it comes to this stillborn rivalry, which remains the most hyped and predictable but also the most noteworthy.

Actually, it is incredible that, as much progress as Sharapova has made since she was a green 17-year-old who stunned Serena in the Wimbledon final, Williams has been happily making her pay for that affront ever since. The results may always be the same, but the matches are always different, intense, individual narratives—whodunits that always end up with the same guilty butler.

Sharapova last won a set from Williams in 2013, at this very tournament, and it appeared that she might at least surmount that hurdle today. For Williams threatened in the very first game and in the third, but was unable to capitalize on a total of four break points. She appeared to lose interest in the proceedings at that point, and the next thing you knew, Sharapova, belting out big forehands while clinging for dear life in her service games, was up 4-1.

But it is at such times that Williams is at her most dangerous. She proceeded to hold serve, then broke Sharapova. After falling behind 0-30 in the next game, Williams began to call in the airstrikes. She hit an ace and a service winner that barely ticked off Sharapova’s racquet. Sharapova retorted with a clean winner to reach break point at 30-40, but Williams rained down another service winner and two aces to hold the game for 4-4.

Sharapova never regained an overall lead for the rest of the match.

What was Williams thinking when she’d let Sharapova off multiple hooks and found herself trailing 1-4? Not very much, actually.

“I thought, ‘Okay, I'm only down a break.’ It was really just one break,” she said. “The scoreline looked bigger than what it was. I felt if I could just break back, then I would be back in the match.”

Sharapova had her own take on how Williams got back into the driver’s seat and then drove off with the match:

“She served her way out of trouble on those break points in the first set, and then the second set I was up 2-0, 40-15 (and serving), which was a game I should have taken—a pretty important game. I thought in key moments she served really well today. I got a few of them but, you know, not good enough to get myself back in the point.”

The serve was the most critical and talked-about aspect of this match, so these statistics will be relevant: Sharapova, uncharacteristically, had no aces, made a decent but by no means great 61 percent of her first serves, and she won 56 percent of those points. But she allowed Williams nine break-point chances, four of which were converted.

Williams was better in every department except, ironically, first-serve conversion percentage. But she was just two percentage points off Sharapova’s pace in that one. The eight aces Williams hit were worth two games, and the five double-faults struck by Sharapova were worth another game-plus.

“I hadn't been serving great too much this tournament,” Williams said. “Then I started serving a lot better today. I was hitting a hundred-twenty miles per hour. I was like, ‘Whoa! Is that me?’ I usually don't hit in the 120s like that. I was a little surprised. I wasn't trying to hit it that hard. She actually was getting them back, too.”

Perhaps, but Sharapova wasn’t getting back quite enough of them to complicate Williams’ life. Furthermore, it was impossible to ignore the impact of the serve because of the way both women approached it, as if all those forehands and backhands—many of them artistic works in and of themselves—were just so much scrollwork and engraving surrounding the central treasure.

Williams’ serve is trustworthy, and she can almost always count on it to come to her rescue, as it did today. By contrast, Sharapova’s serve is like a green-broke horse. You never know when it will commence to pitch, crow-hop, and buck Maria off, leaving her sitting on her tush in the dust.

This tendency of Sharapova’s serve to turn on her helps explain why she likes to take so much time between her first and second serve. She’s calming the steed; whispering in the ear of the skittish horse. If anything, she’s grown even more deliberate over time—so much so that you have to wonder if she isn’t deliberating herself right out of contention.

Sharapova tends to line up at the center notch, bounce the ball, and then, in perfect repose, take a long, hard look across the net at her opponent. She lets her eyes drop and returns to the business at hand, sometimes adding a few more bounces before she finally makes her toss. The drama continues to build through all that time, but maybe that’s not such a good thing for a player as prone to jerking second serves into net as she is.

Sharapova’s methodical approach, including that trademark moment of contemplation she takes with her back to the net after almost every point, have been imitated by a few players lately. Is it flattery, or mischievous mimicry? Even Serena tried Sharapova’s self-organizing technique a few times today.

“I had just made some errors,” Williams said. “I was just trying to regroup and get my mind back together. . . I think it helps me relax. Sometimes I do get a little uptight, and it helps me with that.”

Serena may have learned that tactic from Sharapova, but the loser insisted that she’s also receiving tuition from Williams in disciplines other than the myriad ways one can lose a match to her. Her lot is frustrating, but not futile. 

“Despite my results against her, I still look forward to playing against her because you learn so much from that type of level which she produces,” Sharapova said, blushing modesty. “You finish the match, and you know where you need to improve and the things that you need to work on, because someone like her, who is so powerful and explosive and is in there every point, that teaches you to make sure that you're in there every point too and you're doing your thing consistently, not just for a short period of time.”

As long as Sharapova can say such things, you can bet that the hunt will remain interesting, if predictable.

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