Serena Williams overcame huge mental and physical hurdles to beat sister Venus and longtime foe Victoria Azarenka in consecutive matches to reach the Wimbledon semifinals and keep her hopes for a calendar year Grand Slam alive. Her reward for doing so is a meeting with a player she has owned like no other in their head-to-head series, Maria Sharapova.
Given that the Russian has been Williams’ closest rival -- in terms of success -- for much of the last five years and is the only other active player to have won all four Grand Slam titles, it is extraordinary that the American has won 16 straight contests between the two. Indeed, rarely have their matches even been close. The sets won between them since the start of 2005 reads 32-3 in favor of Williams. Five of their meetings have come in Grand Slam finals, including earlier this year when Williams came out on top to lift the Australian Open.
“I love playing Maria,” Williams said after getting past Azarenka in the quarterfinals. “I think she brings out the best in me. I think I bring out the best in her. I thought we had a wonderful final in Australia. It was very entertaining. She played really well. For me, I don't feel like I have any pressure going into this match. We both actually lost early last year. We both are kind of enjoying this moment and one of us will be in the final.”
Since the Australian Open victory, Williams has gone on to claim the French Open to prompt fervent discussion about her prospects of becoming the first player since Steffi Graf in 1988 to take a clean sweep of Grand Slam titles in a single year. While she was able to take the title in Paris despite battling illness and not being at her best, she has been incredibly sharp in defeating five-time Wimbledon champion Venus and former world No. 1 Azarenka this week.
It is an ominous task then that lies in front of Sharapova, who, like Williams, was also pushed to three sets in the quarterfinals when getting past unseeded American Coco Vandeweghe. Yet, while she won just one game against Williams in the final of the 2012 Olympics on the grass at the All England Club, her first meeting with the world No. 1 at Wimbledon provides much happier memories. It was in the 2004 final that as a 17-year-old Sharapova stunned Williams and became an international star when winning in straight sets to take her first Grand Slam title.
“That would be an incredible moment for me to step out on Centre Court against her again,” Sharapova said on Thursday. “I think it's always a new match. I haven't had great success against her. I would love to change that around. That's how I look at it.”
Despite that breakthrough in 2004, in recent years, Sharapova has enjoyed little success at Wimbledon. Indeed, this is only the second time in nine years that the 28-year-old has made it past the fourth round.
Prediction: There has been nothing in the recent performances of the two long-time rivals to suggest that Sharapova can end her losing streak and upset the 20-time Grand Slam champion. Williams has been tuned in and playing at an extremely high level in her last two wins and, unless there is a significant letdown, the 33-year-old will triumph in straight sets.
Start time: Williams and Sharapova will be on Centre Court following the first women’s semifinal, between Garbine Muguruza and Agnieszka Radwanska, which is scheduled to get underway at 8 a.m. EDT.
TV channel: ESPN