What was lining up to be Maria Sharapova’s best chance at beating Serena Williams for the first time in eight years turned into yet another example of Serena’s current dominance over any and all challengers.
Williams on Sunday won her second straight clay title, blasting Sharapova 6-1, 6-4 to defend her title at the Madrid Open. It was her first title on red clay since winning the French Open in 2002 and the win assured her the No. 1 ranking and top seed going into Paris.
Three thoughts on Williams’ 50th career title and what it means as the French Open approaches:
1. Serena the streak-snapper: Sharapova came into the Madrid final having won 25 straight matches on red clay and she hadn’t dropped a set coming into the final. Meanwhile, Williams was in her first final on red clay in more than a decade.
But the only number that matters? Twelve. That’s how many victories in a row for Williams against Sharapova, who had pushed Serena to three sets in their last meeting, in the Sony Open final on March 30. Williams prevailed this time even after a week of mediocre (by her standards) tennis. When it comes to this “rivalry,” it’s official: You pick Serena to win every time until proved otherwise. I’ve learned my lesson after predicting a three-set win for Sharapova.
2. This is a crushing defeat for Sharapova: Ask players what they admire most about Sharapova and most cite her focus and fight. She of the steely gaze, that permanently clenched fist, the intensely placid face as she sits down on the changeover. It has been her trademark for years and it will continue to be for years to come. Against everyone except Serena.
The stress and panic is evident for Sharapova when she faces her main rival, a woman she beat at 17 to win her first Grand Slam title, at Wimbledon in 2004. It’s in every swing of her racket, which can decelerate because she’s unsure. It’s in every service motion and rushed follow-through because she’s already thinking of the scorched return that is surely coming her way (she served at 62 percent in the match with eight double faults). And it’s in every exasperated look she shoots to her box after errors (21 unforced errors to 14 winners).
“You need to take the fight! You’re not here,” coach Thomas Hogstedt admonished after she fell behind in the first set. “You’re so close to beat her last time [in Miami], but you have to give her the fight.”
Her own coach admonishing Sharapova for not fighting hard enough? Siberia, we have a problem.
Sharapova quickly trailed 0-4. In the 32-minute first set, she won only 18 points compared with Williams’ 31.
“I started the match really slow,” Sharapova said afterward. “Against an opponent like her, you just can’t give her that because she plays extremely well when she’s confident.”
Said Williams: “I don’t know if her start was shaky. I felt that I played good in the first few games. But playing such a great athlete and great tennis player like Maria, you have to come out and play good. So I had no other choice.”
3. Serena as French Open favorite: We saw this script last year, when Williams went through the clay season undefeated with two titles while playing better tennis than she is right now. Then she lost in the first round of the French Open to Virginie Razzano. Given how easily she beat the best player on clay Sunday, it’s hard not to back her as the top favorite at Roland Garros. Her biggest opponent is herself and if she can exorcise the demons that seem to follow her everywhere she goes at Roland Garros, she’s the one to back. But that’s a big “if,” as she hasn’t made it past the quarterfinals since 2003.
“It is the ultimate challenge,” Williams said of the French Open. “Whether I reach it, I don’t know. I’m not going to put that pressure on me.”
As for Sharapova, she’s still the No. 2 favorite to defend her title. She’ll be on the opposite side of the draw and w0uldn’t meet Williams until the final. Her preparation has been as good as she could expect.
“I am happy about the fact of getting late into tournaments, winning tournaments, getting to the finals,” Sharapova said. “If that means having to face Serena in the final, that’s a pretty great challenge out there. I take it, because I’m a very big competitor.”