MELBOURNE—Woman’s tennis is all about rivalries – spicy, in-your-face and unrelenting.
It all goes back to 1926, when an unblinking, 20-year-old hotshot from Berkeley, California – Helen Wills – went to Cannes to challenge the preeminence of France’s elegant diva, Suzanne Lenglen, who had won Wimbledon six times. Their exhibition drew international attention and was one of the biggest women’s sports events of the era.
More recently, the feisty American Billie Jean King often battled the indrawn Aussie great, Margaret Court.
Then came perhaps the greatest rivalry in all of sports – Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratiiova. Other sizzling WTA rivalries soon followed that were captivating and even tragic. A deranged Steffi Graf fan stabbed the German’s great rival Monica Seles in the back. Seles’ father bitterly called Steffi the “Knife No. 1.” When Serena and Venus Williams came on the tour, all the top players – Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters –- seemed to come together and circle their wagons. The Williamses were seen to be in their own world. The tennis universe promptly provided blow-back, but with only limited effect.
Rivalries flared. Matches were intense. There were locker-room tiffs and on-court dust-ups, whether it be Henin at the French Open or Capriati in New York.
For young Serena, the only time her sense of rivalry went flat was when she faced her sister Venus. Then again, many of her recent match-ups with players like Li Na, Vika Azarenka and Aga Radwanska have been lopsided.
But, as an Italian reporter said, “There’s something not normal” about Serena’s record against Maria Sharapova. As a 17-year-old, the fearless Maria flicked Serena aside at the Wimbledon Championships – such a gleeful kid. Donald Trump said Williams had been intimidated by the Russian’s supermodel looks. And the media soon learned of Maria’s gritty backstory. Her parents lived near the Chernobyl nuclear plant that imploded. They fled to Siberia before Maria’s fierce father Yuri brought his slight, seven-year-old daughter to Florida to seek the holy grail. Yuri worked two jobs and took his kid to tennis lessons on his bike.
A bit ungainly, Maria was not the best of athletes. Her movement was suspect, and she lacked a certain quick-twitch fleetness so important in tennis.
But oh, were her ground strokes sublime! Clean, fierce, deep, punishing. She could dominate lesser players with an unsparing ease. Maria went on to win each of the Grand Slams. She overcame a devastating shoulder injury. But she never overcame her chief rival. Williams has won their last 18 matches and 19 of 21 overall. It’s a bit of an embarrassment. The Russian hasn’t beaten Serena since the WTA finals in 2004, and she hasn’t been able to claim a set since 2013.
Williams does everything a little bit (or a lot) better. She’s more athletic and faster. Her return bites, and puts Maria on the defensive. On serve, Serena is more consistent, with the best stroke in tennis history. Maria’s groundies dial up the fast, flat pace that Serena loves. It’s a great match-up for the American. And Williams isn’t going to suffer too many mental brain cramps against an A-list glamour player who earns more endorsement money then she does, has been on more magazine covers, and once attacked the ethics of Williams’ coach and former boyfriend Patrick Mouratoglou.
Rolling Stone magazine noted that “Sharapova is tall, white, and blond, and, because of that, makes more money in endorsements than Serena, who is black, beautiful, and built like one of those monster trucks that crushes Volkswagens at sports arenas.”
Today Serena crushed Maria. Their match precisely mirrored their twelve-year rivalry. Maria won two of their first three matches way back when. Today Sharapova won two of their first three games. Then, at four-all in the first set, she had two break points. But Serena simply put some pedal to the metal. And the rest is history.
Speaking of history, that’s about all Serena seems to be playing for these days. She says she’s done it all: “Everything from here on out is a bonus…I told myself that I’m here to have fun now.”
Unfortunately for Serena’s rivals, for nearly two decades, they haven’t exactly been having fun. A sporting and resigned Sharapova was realistic. (She’s been to this rodeo before.) Maria admitted, “I don’t know if there was much I could do.”
Exxcept for Steffi Graf, who split two matches with the very young Serena, Williams has a winning record against all her chief “rivals.” Here’s how’s she’s done against them:
Martina Hingis 8-6, Justin Henin 8-6, Jennifer Capriati 10-7, Venus 16-11, Elena Dementieva 7-5, Lindsay Davenport 10-4, Kim Clijsters 7-2 and Li Na 11-1. By the way, as for her next two probable Melbourne opponents, Serena is 8-0 against Aga Radwanska and 17-3 against Vika Azarenka. In other words, of late Williams’ match-ups have been “un-rivalries.”
We know Serena’s return of serve induces double faults. Now we know her dominance also induces completely understandable double talk. After her loss, IT asked Sharapova if losing again was frustrating. Maria said Serena “makes you go back to the drawing board, and that’s inspiring.”
One stat – 2-19 – and two words come to mind: “Oh, dear.”