MELBOURNE, Australia—When you think of Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams, Mean Girls comes to mind. Not because those two words describe these two proud, confident veterans, but because the movie premiered in the last year Sharapova got a win over Williams—2004. That was also the year Facebook launched, and Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston were, as the social-media website might say, “in a relationship.”
Eleven years later, Williams—who actually lost two of her first three matches against Sharapova—leads their head-to-head 19-2 (6-1 at Grand Slams). On Tuesday, in a rematch of last year’s final, the American advanced to the Australian Open semifinals with a resounding 6-4, 6-1 victory. She’ll next face Agnieszka Radwanska, who beat Carla Suarez Navarro in straight sets.
To be fair, a younger Sharapova did make her two wins over Williams count. As a 17-year-old she toppled the favorite in the Wimbledon final for her maiden major title, and then beat her again to win the year-end championships. And to be even fairer, Williams seems to save her most sharpened focus and highest intensity for Sharapova.
“It’s something about her game. I like the way she hits the ball,” Williams said. “Plus when I play her I know automatically I have to step up my game. I think that makes me play better.
“When I’m forced to play better, I don’t know, I do well.”
She does really well. The last time Sharapova even won a set against Williams was in Miami in 2013; the world No. 1 has won the last 14 they’ve contested.
While Williams has dominated other prestigious players, it’s her success against Sharapova that stands out. The Russian has been consistently ranked just behind Williams throughout her career and owns five Grand Slam singles titles, yet can hardly put a dent Williams’ armor. Tennis fans love a good rivalry, like in the old Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi days, or when Monica Seles and Steffi Graf pushed each other to the brink. Alas, this shall never be one.
On warm afternoon, as is her occasional wont, Williams began erratically, hitting unforced errors and giving Sharapova some early. But leading 2-0, Sharapova responded with double faults, as is her most common wont; she struck seven in total.
The pressure on her serve meant that Sharapova needed to hit laser-like winners to pinpoint-sized spots on the court to win points against Williams. For a while she did just that. But Williams simply used her serve to bail herself out of trouble. One of her 13 aces sealed an eight-minute game for 5-4, and that would be the turning point of the match.
Up until that point, both women were pounding away from the baseline, pushing to see who would fall off balance first. You could see the respect they had for each other as the battle got tighter, but eventually the 21-time Grand Slam champion secured a gritty break on her fourth set point. It opened the floodgates: Williams began dictating play, and would end up with nearly three times as many winners (and almost two times as many errors) as Sharapova.
A little bit of drama occurred during the set break when Williams spoke with the tournament doctor. She later revealed she was struggling with food poisoning issues from a few days ago. Not that it seemed to matter in the second set, with Williams’ already strong returns going up an octave higher than Sharapova’s infamous grunts. The American pulled ahead 5-0 in a matter of what felt like seconds to make it seven games won in a row. A rare ace from Sharapova—she wound up with just three, compared to the 21 she hit in her fourth-round win over Belinda Bencic—finally put her on the board.
The fighter in Sharapova showed up to put up a battle in the final game, but it was much too little and far too late and Williams soon sealed her spot in the semifinals.
After the match, a mellow Sharapova said the loss was motivating, “because she’s at a different level. She makes you go back to the drawing board, not just for me, but for many other players.” Still, other players have successfully beaten Williams in the past decade—players ranked much lower than Sharapova and with far less experience.
Sharapova’s comments on how she can ever turn her record against Williams around provided no solutions. “Keep getting to the point where I have an opportunity to play against her,” Sharapova said. “If I don’t have that chance then I don’t have the opportunity to try something different.”
Meanwhile, Williams, on the brink of tying Graf on the all-time major title count, seems to be having more fun than ever. “Everything from here on out, every match, is a bonus for me,” she said. “I don’t have to win this tournament or any other tournament for as long as I live. I really want to enjoy being a professional tennis player and playing on Grand Slam courts, moments like this.”
The Williams-Sharapova saga cannot be called a rivalry. If anything, it’s more like the one-sided Roger Federer-Andy Roddick chronicle in which Federer won 21 matches times to Roddick’s three. In one stretch, Federer beat the American 11 times in a row, but at least that’s not 18. And at least Roddick got the last jab by winning their final encounter, in Miami.
At this point, the last jab is the most Sharapova can hope for.