It’s yet another week of proven stability in the WTA’s upper echelons, as it’ll be No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the Sony Open final. Serena Williams played her best match of the season in dismissing Agnieszka Radwanska 6-0, 6-3 in the semifinals on Thursday to set up yet another showdown with Maria Sharapova, who rolled past Jelena Jankovic 6-2, 6-1 earlier in the day.
Serena leads the head-to-head 11-2 and is aiming to become the oldest champion at the Sony Open by winning her second title of the year. Here’s what to expect from the final.
• How do you solve a problem like Maria? Just ask Serena: CBS has television rights for Saturday’s final, and the network will undoubtedly hype the match. On one hand, it’s understandable: Williams and Sharapova are the two biggest names in the game; they’re No. 1 and No. 2, respectively; and their fan bases are both vocal and quickly mobilized. But the fact remains that Sharapova hasn’t beaten Williams in almost nine years, her last win coming at the WTA Championships in 2004. Since then, it’s been beatdown after beatdown for Sharapova, and she hasn’t shown any recent signs that she can turn the trend around.
Sharapova has scoffed at reporters’ description of her matchup with Williams as a rivalry. “It’s not really a rivalry until I win few more matches,” she famously said at Stanford two years ago. She hasn’t won a set since 2008 and hasn’t even pushed Williams to a tiebreaker since 2010. Add to that the fact that Williams is a five-time Miami champion while Sharapova, a four-time runner-up, is still chasing her first title here, and it’s hard to think this will be a tight match.
“I love playing her,” Williams said. “I love seeing her on the opposite side, because she just brings out a good game. I just like the challenge of playing someone who has made history and who is doing so well. Maybe that’s it. I just want to play well against a great player.”
There are a number of reasons why Williams has owned their non-rivalry over the years. Tactically, Williams’ premium serve lets her hold easily and really attack Sharapova’s vulnerable serve. Though Sharapova can hit the ball big, Williams’ movement makes her impossible to hit through. That means the Russian is forced to go for more than she’s comfortable with.
But tactics are secondary when these two meet. The bottom line is that Williams just relishes putting Sharapova in her place. Sharapova is the highest-earning female athlete in the world, yet her résumé pales in comparison to Serena’s. As the saying goes, nothing is more dangerous than a fit and motivated Serena Williams. For her, seeing Sharapova across the net, the woman who won her maiden Slam at Wimbledon at Williams’ expense, is all the motivation that the American has ever needed.
“She’s been playing awesome. I definitely expect a tough match,” Williams said. “What else can you expect? She hasn’t lost in a long time, so I have to be ready.”
I suspect she will be.
• Sharapova is coming in hot and there’s a lot on the line: The Russian is on a career-best 22-set winning streak; she hasn’t dropped one since — surprise — losing to Williams in Doha in February. Sharapova has followed that loss with 11 consecutive victories, including her first title of the year two weeks ago at Indian Wells. If Sharapova wins on Saturday, she’ll become just the third woman to complete the Indian Wells-Miami double, joining Steffi Graf and Kim Clijsters. She’ll also build on her point lead over Victoria Azarenka in the rankings heading into the clay season, where she’s defending three titles, including the French Open.
Sharapova needs to have a perfect day and hope Williams is willing to gift some errors. The first priority will be holding her serve. If Williams notches an early break, the match could be over quickly.
“She’s a tremendous athlete, has so much power, and a confident player as well,” Sharapova said. “So if you have a few easy games where you’re not stepping in, not playing the way you should be, she takes really good advantage of it.”
• It’s all about Serena: If Williams plays as well as she did in her win over Radwanska, this could be brutal. Williams won 68 percent of her points on clean winners (she hit 40 winners overall). It was an overwhelming display of power, speed and touch, and Radwanska was completely overmatched.
The flip side is that it’s been an up and down tournament for Williams. She trailed Dominika Cibulkova one set and 4-1 in the second before rallying to win to win 2-6, 6-4, 6-2 in the fourth round, and in the next round she spotted Li Na a 5-2 lead in the second set before coming back for a 6-3, 7-6 (5) victory. She’s been sluggish at times, emotionally flat and seemingly disengaged. I don’t expect her to come out that way against Sharapova, but it’s something to watch early.
Prediction: Serena in two sets.