The No. 1 ranking will be on the line when top-ranked Serena Williams and No. 2 Maria Sharapova meet for the 15th time in the Madrid Open final on Sunday. Williams beat 2012 French Open finalist Sara Errani 7-5, 6-2 in the semifinals, while Sharapova dispatched Ana Ivanovic 6-4, 6-3 to win her 500th career match.
This may just be Sharapova’s best chance to snap a losing streak to Williams that dates to 2005. That’s one long, 11-match losing streak.
“I haven’t had a win against her in a long time,” Sharapova told Reuters after being Ivanovic. “But the great thing is that I’m setting myself up in a position where I can try to change that around.”
The best way to understand just how long it’s been since Sharapova, who beat Serena to win her first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in 2004, got a win is with this graphic from the WTA website. Look at those scorelines. That’s a lot of bagels and breadsticks.
Sharapova took the first set off Williams in their last meeting, the Sony Open final in March, the first time in five years she hadn’t been swept by Williams.
“I thought I played really well, at a good level, in Miami for the first set and a half but that’s not enough,” she told Reuters. “Obviously the goal is to keep that level for the whole match and to take my opportunities.”
The difference this time is Sharapova is now playing on what has become, rather surprisingly, her best surface, one that is clearly Williams’ worst. Sharapova, the 2012 French Open champion, is riding a 25-match win streak on red clay, dating to Stuttgart last year, and comes into the Madrid final having crushed the competition and not lost a single set in Spain.
In contrast, this is Williams’ first final on red clay in over 10 years, her last being at the 2002 French Open when she beat sister Venus for her one and only title at Roland Garros. She hasn’t been as convincing this week. She’s only dropped one set — a shocking 6-0 bagel to clay specialist Anabel Medina Garrigues in the quarterfinals — but her matches have been surprisingly close given the power she should be able to generate in Madrid, which is played at altitude. She’s aiming for her 50th career title Sunday.
“I feel this whole tournament I have only played clay-court opponents,” Williams told The Associated Press after beating Errani on Saturday. “All have been smaller than me. Tomorrow will be a different game, more power.”
The red clay has been such a mental issue for Williams. There’s no reason she shouldn’t be able to win on the surface, but the fact is she hasn’t in over a decade. That futility was highlighted last year in her shocking first-round exit to Virginie Razzano at the French Open. On non-red clay, she doesn’t have a problem. She beat Sharapova in a tight affair in Charleston in 2008 and Madrid last year, where she handed the Russian her only loss on clay — albeit blue clay — in the last two seasons.
It goes without saying that if Williams comes out and plays her best tennis she’ll win. Her best, regardless of the surface, is just better than Sharapova’s, and the quicker conditions in Madrid favor her bigger game. But this is a huge opportunity for Sharapova to finally exorcise the Williams demon and make this a rivalry.
Prediction: Sharapova in three sets.