Maria Sharapova played her best match against Serena Williams in almost 10 years and it still wasn’t enough.
Williams came back from a set and a break down and swept the last 10 games to win the Sony Open final 4-6, 6-3, 6-0 on Saturday. Serena collected her sixth tournament title and 48th overall. Sharapova, who entered on an 11-match winning streak in which she hadn’t dropped a set, fell to 0-5 in Miami finals.
Here are four thoughts after the first battle between the current No. 1 and No. 2 at the Sony Open since 2000:
• Serena’s better is better than Maria’s better: And Sharapova knows it. That’s the ballgame.
For a set and a half, Sharapova played as well as she could possibly expect against a good but not great Williams, who struggled with her return early. While Williams racked up some untimely errors and labored to find rhythm on her serve, Sharapova looked remarkably clear on what she wanted to do: attack Serena’s forehand and return big. The tactic earned her two breaks in the first set and she quickly got another in the second set as she played her best return game of the match to break Williams for a 3-2 lead.
Sharapova was flying and seemed well on her way to her first win over Williams since 2004. All she had to do was hold serve. But Williams broke her at love to pull even at 3-3, and Sharapova wouldn’t win another game. Yes, Williams can flip the switch that quickly.
“Well, I think that’s why she’s No. 1 in the world,” Sharapova said. “She’s really capable of doing that. She obviously had to do a few things differently. I was controlling a lot of the points in the first set and the beginning of the second. Then towards the end … I wasn’t there.”
Sharapova won 44 percent of her second serves in the first set, thanks in large part to Williams’ poor returning. But that number dipped to only nine percent (1-of-11) in the second set, as Serena cleaned up her game and started crushing returns past her. Williams won the last four games of the set and Sharapova was left sitting on her bench on the changeover wondering what the hell just happened as her coach, Thomas Högstedt, admonished her to “stop whining” and keep fighting. But it was over. Williams had nonchalantly slapped her down with that love break at 3-2. That single game was a haymaker that staggered Sharapova. She never found her footing again.
• Serena’s trademark ability to turn matches around led to a dominant two weeks in Miami: To say that Williams “romped” to the title would be wrong. She dropped only one set heading into the final but showed signs of sluggish play and lapses in focus in her three-set win over Dominika Cibulkova in the fourth round and even in her straight-set win over Li Na in the quarterfinals. She was playing well enough to beat anyone outside the top five on Saturday, but with Sharapova bringing her best early, it took Williams some time to adjust. Even down a set and a break, she never panicked and eventually muscled the match back on her own terms and rolled.
“I feel like I was just making so many errors,” Williams said. “I just was like, Serena, are you really going to get to the final and not play up to your potential? I don’t think I was as energized as I could be.”
We’ve seen Williams do this so many times — and yes, we’ve also seen her cruising along before letting go of the wheel for no good reason — and yet it still never ceases to amaze. If anything, it’s tournaments like these that are more soul-crushing for her opponents than her no-drama title runs. To step on the court against her and know that no lead is safe no matter the scoreline is to already suffocate under the pressure.
• Confidence-boosting or confidence-shattering loss? We’ll see: Sharapova has now lost 11 straight matches to Williams over a 10-year span. But this was the closest that Sharapova had come to beating her since the 2005 Australian Open, where she served for the match twice and Williams battled back to save three match points and win 2-6, 7-5, 8-6. Since then, Sharapova hadn’t won a set off Williams on hard courts until this match. That’s the cruelty of this three-set loss. This was Sharapova’s best effort in years and she still lost 12 of the last 15 games.
Serena agreed: “Today wasn’t my day, I don’t think. Maria played really the best I have seen her play, and I think she was moving unbelievable and she was hitting winners from everywhere.”
“I certainly played a lot better,” Sharapova said, comparing her effort to their previous matches. “I had my chances. There’s no reason why I couldn’t win the match. … [I]t was a step in the right direction and there’s no doubt that we’ll be playing many more times. There’s no doubt I’ll be able to beat her.”
Sharapova has shown tremendous resilience in bouncing back from bad losses over the last few years and she’ll need to do it again. Last year she made the finals of both Indian Wells and Miami and failed to win a set. Then she went on to roll through the clay season and complete her career Grand Slam at Roland Garros.
• Bye bye hard courts, bonjour clay courts: Williams will travel to Charleston, S.C., to defend her title at The Family Circle Cup next week. Sharapova, who fell one match short of completing the Indian Wells-Miami double, will rest and prepare to defend her title in Stuttgart, Germany, in three weeks. With Victoria Azarenka having yet to prove her clay bona fides, defending champion Sharapova and 2002 winner Williams will likely head into the French Open as the favorites. Both women streaked into the French Open last year, splitting the four biggest clay lead-ups, with Williams winning Charleston and Madrid and Sharapova taking Stuttgart and Rome.