The top two women’s players in the world and the two biggest stars in the sport for the past decade renew their rivalry in much-anticipated Australian Open final on Saturday. For all their accomplishments in recent years, such has been the one-sided nature of the contests between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova that it would be charitable to even call it a rivalry at all.
It is now more than a decade since a 17-year-old Sharapova became attained global recognition far beyond the tennis world when stunning defending champion Williams in the final of Wimbledon. Since then the Russian has gone on to complete a Career Grand Slam, battling back after undergoing shoulder surgery that may well have permanently derailed the career of a player lacking Sharapova’s incredible fighting instincts. But what she has not been able to do since backing up that 2004 Wimbledon win with victory at that year’s Tour Championships, is beat the most dominant player of this generation.
In the 15 matches since 2004, Sharapova has failed to win any, taking just four sets off the American. While Sharapova can overpower almost every other player on the WTA Tour, she has been repeatedly muted by the booming serve and monstrous groundstrokes of Williams.
“I think her power and her aggressiveness, I think that's always made me a little bit too aggressive, maybe going for a little bit more than I had to,” Sharapova said after beating compatriot Ekaterina Makarova in straight sets in her semifinal. “She's great at making players hit that shot that you don't necessarily have to go for, maybe going for a little too much, going on the line. It's been a really difficult matchup for me, but, I am a competitor. If I do play her, I will go out and I will do everything I can to try to change that result around.”
If not for a dramatic early escape, Sharapova would have already been long gone from Melbourne. The 2008 Australian Open champion displayed the full extent of her battling qualities to save two match points in her second round encounter with Alexandra Panova. But, following some stern words from her father, the 27-year-old has made the most of her second life, not dropping more than three games in a set in the four matches since.
Williams has also rounded into top form during the year’s first Grand Slam. After dropping sets early on, the 33-year-old eased through the challenges of Dominika Cibulkova and 19-year-old rising star Madison Keys. More impressive it that all the while she has been battling an illness that has seen her struggling with coughing fits out on the court. After getting past Keys in the last four, Williams claimed to be feeling better and to having a relaxed, positive mindset heading into Saturday’s showpiece against her long-time rival.
“Maria is playing great,” she said. “She's in the tournament only because she's a fighter and only because she refuses to give up. So, yeah, it's a new match. She has nothing to lose, once again. She has only things to gain. And I feel that way, too. I've won this tournament several times. I don't have to go out there and have another title. I want it, but it's not life or death for me. I think that helps me he relax. So, yeah, she absolutely has nothing to lose, and I have nothing to lose, so it will be fun.”
Her semifinal victory means Williams already knows for sure that she won’t lose the world No. 1 ranking she has held for 101 straight weeks. And up for grabs is a 19th Grand Slam singles title and the chance to move clear of legends Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova in fourth place on the all-time list.
Start time: 3:30 a.m. EST
TV channel: ESPN
Live stream: Watch ESPN, ESPN3