“What rivalry? I win all the matches.”
– Martina Hingis on her supposed “rivalry” with Anna Kournikova
The best rivalries elevate matches into must-see events. They put butts in seats, drawing eyes to the spectacle not only between the lines but also outside the court. They craft overarching storylines and define career trajectories.
Sports need rivalries to survive and tennis is no different. The ATP has bathed in the luxurious glow of this Golden Era, with a reliable two, then three and now four players who consistently clash in the late stages of tournaments for the biggest titles in the game. We know them by singular names — Roger, Rafa, Novak and Andy — and the four have made the Masters and Grand Slams appointment television on the weekends.
It’s been an entirely different story on the WTA, where parity has reigned the last half-decade. The 2012 season has actually been one of the most stable in years, with Victoria Azarenka winning the Australian Open and holding the No. 1 spot for most of the year; Maria Sharapova completing her career Slam at Roland Garros and solidly planting herself at No. 2; and Serena Williams owning the second half of the year, winning Wimbledon, Olympic gold and the U.S. Open. With Maria’s global marketability and power game, Serena’s sheer dominance and intimidation and Vika’s perfect mix of brashness and consistency, you’d think that any matchup involving two of the three would yield Homeland-worthy drama. Instead, we get Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: a well-cast dud of a show that left you disappointed almost every time.
When it comes to identifying the culprit? Look no further than Maria Sharapova.
Last weekend featured “the match we all want to see” in Azarenka vs. Sharapova in the China Open final. At least the draw sheet and the commentators try to convince you of that. It’s No. 1 vs. No. 2; blonde vs. blonde; whooping vs. shrieking. Leading up to the match there was talk of their infamous shoulder bump in Stuttgart and Sharapova’s willingness to throw shade Azarenka’s way anytime she can. But when the two took the court in Beijing there was no drama. Azarenka continued her dominance over Sharapova on hard courts, rolling 6-3, 6-1. Azarenka won her sixth consecutive match against Sharapova on the surface dating to Stanford in 2010, improving to 7-4 overall and 4-1 this year in the head-to-head series. (Sharapova defeated Azarenka on clay in this year’s Stuttgart final.)
Azarenka tends to make Sharapova look like an illusory No. 2. Vika doesn’t just win these matches on hard courts; she unleashes MMA-style beatdowns (with the exception of a three-setter in the U.S. Open semifinals). If Sharapova is all about the quick strike, Azarenka is the grappler. She hugs the baseline and has no problem absorbing Sharapova’s pace and redirecting back deep in the court, pressuring Sharapova with her lateral defense and strong returning. You get the sense that Sharapova just can’t breathe (in a tennis sense) in their matches. If she tries to play first-strike tennis and hit through Azarenka, Sharapova is prone to making an error as she goes for flat shots on the line. If she pulls up and tries to beat Azarenka in the rally, the No. 1 pounces on anything short to put Sharapova on the defensive immediately.
If Sharapova’s matchups against Azarenka are a non-rivalry, I don’t know a kind way to describe her matches against Williams. If Azarenka is the submission specialist, Williams is the knockout artist. Sharapova simply has no answer for her firepower, getting blasted off the court and suffering the same fate as 99 percent of the women’s tour. This one is so one-sided that even Sharapova concedes it’s not a rivalry. “I think I’ll need to win a couple of more matches before it becomes a true rivalry,” she said last year. Sharapova hasn’t beaten Williams in eight years, going 0-8 since a victory at the 2004 WTA Tour Championships. That doesn’t mean their matches don’t get hyped beyond measure, an understandable consequence of their stature, but whenever the two biggest stars of the women’s game meet, it’s one-way traffic. Downhill. On a very steep incline. Their last three matches? 2012 Olympics (grass): 6-0, 6-1. 2012 Madrid (clay): 6-1, 6-3. 2011 Stanford (hard): 6-1, 6-3.
Can rivalries exist when the numbers are so skewed? Sure they can. We still tune in to every match between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on clay despite Rafa’s 12-2 advantage. Andy Murray still hasn’t toppled Federer at a Slam, yet we gather around the television to see if this might be the day he breaks that streak. What the Sharapova-Williams and Sharapova-Azarenka matches offer is a rivalry of intangibles. For Sharapova and Williams, it’s about buzz and star power. For Sharapova and Azarenka, it’s a battle of personalities and a contrast in styles. Plus, as with the men, when these women face off, they do so late in the biggest tournaments with a lot on the line.
Still, one glaring problem remains: Sharapova’s matches against Azarenka and Williams just aren’t all that good. She becomes an error machine against Azarenka and looks weaponless against Williams.
Azarenka hasn’t exactly pushed Williams consistently, either, losing 10 of 11 meetings, including two blowouts in 2012. But their other two matches this year were competitive and entertaining. And, if the U.S. Open final is any indication, Azarenka is closing the gap.
Whether that rivalry takes hold depends largely on whether Azarenka — not quite the household name yet — becomes a player who generates buzz of her own. Her U.S. Open performance went a long way toward proving she can. Azarenka and Williams could meet at the WTA Championships in Istanbul in two weeks. If Vika can pull off a win there, 2013 gets very, very interesting.