To commemorate Serena Williams’ 40th birthday on September 26, we're looking back at four matches that define the power, precision and unshakeable persistence that took her to an Open Era record of 23 Grand Slam titles and 319 weeks atop the WTA rankings.

Next up: her rivalry-defining comeback over Maria Sharapova at the 2005 Australian Open.

THE MOMENT: When discussing the modern women’s game, two rivalries have defined the new millennium; in both, Serena Williams is the common denominator. First, there is Serena and Venus, a duo inexorably linked by blood and what they share in common.

Then there is Serena and Maria—that is, Maria Sharapova. They are, in their own way, bonded: by circumstance, and how they differ.

Serena had already won six major titles by the end of 2003, and enjoyed numerous rivalries early in her career. Her initial opposition were either established veterans like Lindsay Davenport, Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati, or colleagues of her own up-and-coming cohort like Martina Hingis, Justine Henin and her own sister. Sharapova was the first teen phenom to upset the order established by Serena and Venus at the turn of the century.


I definitely think she's probably looked at me as a reference maybe growing up, which is exciting...I'd never thought I'd play someone that probably looked up to me. I definitely think she has a fighting spirit and I think that's gotten her to where she is today. Serena Williams on Maria Sharapova

Though her success and longevity often elevated Sharapova to the status of Serena’s closest competitor, she was ultimately a foil in the face of an athlete who played her own game that much better.

While the 20-2 head-to-head tells us how this story played out, there was a time when the Serena-Maria rivalry was at its most explosive, and it unquestionably turned on transformative clash at the start of the 2005 season.

Sharapova had won their last two encounters, most famously at Wimbledon, where she ended Serena’s 20-match winning streak at the All England Club to become a household name. Williams claimed just one major since sweeping to the “Serena” Slam in 2003, but had rounded into form in Melbourne with impressive wins over Nadia Petrova in the fourth round, and world No. 2 Amélie Mauresmo in the quarterfinals.


Serena would ultimately end her head-to-head with Sharapova at 20-2, winning the final 19 matches of their rivalry.

Serena would ultimately end her head-to-head with Sharapova at 20-2, winning the final 19 matches of their rivalry.

But Sharapova posed a different challenge, and entered this match with momentum. She won the first set with ease, 6-2.

On the brink of defeat in the second set at 4-5, Serena pulled off a patented comeback to reel off the next three games and level the match. Sharapova served for the match again in the decider, and would force Williams to save three match points—two with outright winners.

Down break points at 6-all Serena would again lean into legendary form and at last surge to victory, 2-6, 7-5, 8-6, and set aside any doubts about her determination to be the best in the world.

“This is what I love to do,” she explained after the match. “I love nothing more than walking out there, hearing my name being announced, ‘Serena Williams,’ the crowd goes wild. I love that feeling. I love being able to perform and being able to play a sport that's so fun, you can travel the world. I think it's a great, great thing for me. I wouldn't give it up right now for anything.”

Serena managed a similar comeback in the final with Davenport—she lost the first set 6-2, but won the final nine games—to end her 18-month major drought and move within one Roland Garros of a double Career Grand Slam.


WATCH: Serena and Maria played their final match against one another at the 2019 US Open.


THE MEANING: The match had obvious and immediate implications on the Serena-Maria rivalry: Serena would only lose just two more sets in their final 18 matches before Sharapova retired in early 2020, and hand her thudding defeats in four Grand Slam and Olympic finals.

As for Serena herself, the 2005 Australian Open would be her final major victory for almost two years to the day. Injuries took her out of the Top 100 ahead of the Down Under fortnight in 2007, but set the stage for one of her greatest comebacks as she brutalized the field—and Sharapova in the final—to put herself back in Grand Slam contention.

By 2010, she was back to her ethereal best, passing Billie Jean King with a 13th major and fourth Wimbledon title, but only weeks later a freak foot injury and subsequent pulmonary embolisms threatened to sideline Serena indefinitely.

An emotional journey unfolded over the next two years—the nadir of which came in the form of a first-ever first-round loss at the 2012 French Open—but turned around at Wimbledon, where she powered to a momentous win that kickstarted a golden summer at the Olympics and US Open.

By February 2013, Serena was back atop the WTA rankings with a runner-up finish in Doha, and was ready to return to Paris to reverse her biggest disappointment with one of her most memorable battles on the terre battue

On Friday: Williams conquers the clay in 2013 Roland Garros epic over Kuznetsova