Quantity calls it a rivalry. Quality and her cousin Math often beg to differ. But in the last decade, there have been more than a few entertaining encounters between the WTA Tour’s most recognizable stars. So, as the Australian Open’s top seeds prepare to meet for the nineteenth time to decide the ladies’ singles final, TTI is counting down the Top 5 tennis matches between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.
Why only five? Because there haven’t been that many.
Let’s not get crazy.
5. Serena d. Maria, 7-6(9), 6-4, Wimbledon 2010
Before we begin, I bet you’re thinking: Hey David: in all of your handsomeness, how can you compile a Top 5 list of Serena and Maria matches? Only four of their eighteen previous encounters have gone three sets, and one of those featured a hobbled Williams who could hardly serve.
Well, my dear reader, I will answer like this: the numbers end up having precious little importance, given the subjects they surround. Indeed, attach this head-to-head record to Teliana Pereira and Monica Niculescu and there isn’t much of a story. But these are two of the most successful female athletes of the last decade. Like it or not, their matches matter.
But I digress.
Far from the list’s token two-setter, I actually intended to rank this one higher, but decided against it after considering the other candidates. Of their five Grand Slam encounters, this one took place the earliest – on the All-England Club’s infamous Manic Monday. Of all of their matches, this is one where the balance of power most sharply favors the American. Though Sharapova has been a major underdog against Williams before, their fourth round tussle at Wimbledon was undoubtedly the latter at her professional peak, the former at an ignominious nadir.
The Russian was in the second week of a major tournament for only the second time since returning from shoulder surgery, and hadn’t played – much less beaten – a Top 10 opponent all year. By contrast, Williams was enjoying a period of relatively uninterrupted dominance, having reclaimed the No. 1 ranking at the end 2009 and defended her Australian Open trophy, tying Billie Jean King’s total of twelve.
That dynamic ended up leading to two sets of competitive tennis, their most competitive at a major tournament in the last five years. What ranks this match below the rest is how it truly comes down to the first set tiebreak; once the top seed eked out a one-set lead, the final result was never in doubt.
Still, it was a tense one, the closest of Williams’ seven matches en route to the title.
4. Serena d. Maria, 4-6, 6-3, 6-0, Miami 2013
“Nobody beats Player X, Y times in a row!”
It’s a familiar refrain in our sport, one that dates back to 1980 when American Vitas Gerulaitis ended a 16-match losing streak to old foe, Jimmy Connors. The phrase reemerged again this week in Melbourne, when Tomas Berdych prevented an eighteenth straight loss to Spain’s Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals.
It’s that kind of spirit that hovered over Williams and Sharapova as they began the championship match in Miami two years ago. The Russian hadn’t beaten Williams in nearly nine years, but their encounters had gotten more competitive – or, perhaps, less embarrassing – and conventional wisdom does dictate that one of the days, Williams will show up below her best.
That day seemed to come when a few loose forehands from the American helped Sharapova pocket the opening set, her first in five years. Another break towards the middle of the second set put the Russian into her most convincing lead over Williams in, well, a lot of freakin’ years – at one of the top seed’s favorite tournaments, no less.
It was here, however, that the seven-time Miami champion’s superior mental toughness shone through; after a long eighth game, Williams wouldn’t lose another, bageling her beleaguered rival for the second time in their long herstory.
3. Serena d. Maria, 7-5, 4-6, 6-1, Charleston 2008
Where No. 5 displayed Williams at her highest ascendency, their quarterfinal in Charleston took place at a time when Sharapova looked to be at her veritable peak. The Russian began 2008 in frightening form, romping to a first Australian Open victory and finishing the first three months of the season with just one loss. Across the net, Williams had completed a dubious box set of Grand Slam quarterfinal finishes – three to Belgium’s Justine Henin, and a fourth to lose her Melbourne crown to rival, Jelena Jankovic.
The ballad of Claypova had yet to be written and, believe it or not, this match came at a time when clay was, if anything, a neutral surface for two of the game’s biggest hitters. But it was the Amelia Island champion who drew first blood, racing out to a 5-3 lead in the opening set before Williams roared back with some astonishing winners of her own. Still, Sharapova appeared to have the edge, going up a double break and 40-0 in the second to eventually even the contest.
A match that likely should have been a decisive victory for Sharapova swiftly devolved into another final set nightmare; Williams went on to drop nine points and hit just one error to turn the tables for a 6-1 sudden death.
The loss preceded another seismic shift in their respective careers; Sharapova would soon be forced off the tour to fix her shoulder, while Williams would rise up to take the top spot that the Russian had left vacant.
2. Maria d. Serena, 6-1, 6-4, 2004 Wimbledon
Also known as, #wimbledonat17.
This list wouldn’t be complete with the match that started it all. Williams’ comprehensive victory over Sharapova earlier in the season was but a mere prologue to what has been – and might always be – the most high-profile encounter of their herstory.
The top-seeded – though not top ranked – American was the two-time defending champion at Wimbledon, coming off an extended injury hiatus that left her just below the form that had taken her to five Grand Slam titles in six appearances. Williams had trounced clay court nemesis Jennifer Capriati and seemingly perennial major bridesmaid Amelie Mauresmo to put herself in pole position for an All-England hat trick.
On the other side of the draw, a gangly teenager had snuck through the second week – easily solving veterans like Amy Frazier and Ai Sugiyama – only to show great poise in taking out No. 5 seed Lindsay Davenport over three sets and multiple rain delays.
The ensuing final was Sharapova at her most fearless. She raced through the opening set and escaped an ostensibly ominous deficit in the second, serving out her first Grand Slam title at the tender age of – wait for it! – seventeen.
It was a match that summarily ended any and all comparisons to compatriot, Anna Kournikova. It was the match that launched a thousand ad campaigns, guiding Sharapova to her throne as the world’s highest-paid female athlete.
It was the match Serena Williams would never forget.
1. Serena d. Maria, 2-6, 7-5, 8-6, 2005 Australian Open
In a world devoid of narrative, historical context, and spin, Williams’ and Sharapova’s 2005 Australian Open semifinal is, objectively, the greatest match of their herstory.
Add those three elements back into the mix, and the match becomes so much more.
The American hadn’t won a major title in nearly eighteen months, and had lost her last two matches to the No. 4 seed. Though she failed to serve out the match in straight sets, Sharapova broke again in the third, holding three match points in a titanic tenth game.
Over-hitting a forehand on the first, the young Russian saw a Williams forehand whizz by her on the second. Her final match point featured a short angled forehand from the American, one that Sharapova rushed to get back, inadvertently returning the initiative to Williams, who broke back to win four games later.
It may seem too dramatic to harp on just one game of a nearly three hour match. But for both Sharapova and Williams, this just might have been the most crucial game of their respective careers.
What happens if that Williams forehand clips the netcord, carrying it out? What if Sharapova hits another ace, as she did to set up more than one of her match points? That makes three straight wins for Sharapova, who goes into her first Australian Open final against a player she had beaten in their only previous encounter. That makes six straight major titles without a win for Williams, for whom the chatter about her commitment and place in the game was at an all-time high – as evidenced by Mary Carillo’s color commentary.
A head-to-head record that looks all but conclusive today sat on a knife’s edge ten years ago. It seems all too fitting, then, that this once and future rivalry should resume where it first came to an end.
Which of Serena Williams’ and Maria Sharapova’s eighteen matches has been your favorite? Sound off in the comments!