Tough assignment: Maria Sharapova has not beaten Serena Williams in their past 17 matches. Photo: Joe ArmaoWhen she won her match Maria Sharapova knew instantly what it meant. Serena next. Oh dear.
Serena Williams on the other hand completed her match in Serena straight-sets fashion and blithely had not the merest clue who was next, or at least feigned ignorance. Presumably when you are Serena does it really matter who is next?
For most players Sharapova would be a troubling proposition. Not for Serena. Sharapova has lost to Williams in the last 17 matches they have played.
The last time Sharapova beat Williams was in Los Angeles at the Tour Championships in 2004. Since then on any surface, in any country, in any conditions Williams has won. She can afford to be blithe.
Of course it could also have been an affectation; generously put, Williams and Sharapova don’t much like one another. There is the on-court thing which is really only a rivalry for one of them and that is not Williams. Then there is the black-hearted off-court rivalry – both went out with Grigor Dimitrov.
Several years ago Williams not so obliquely chided Sharapova with a disparaging comment about an anonymous player – clearly Sharapova – and said it was “her choice to be with a guy with a black heart”. There were apologies after but they had all the sincerity of a Sharapova ground shot grunt.
So here we are now, they face each other next round. Centre court. They were here in the final last year and you already know the record.
Plainly this fixture loomed over the draw for Sharapova in a manner more menacingly even than waiting to face Rafa did for Roger (though Roger and Rafa never hated one another).
Sharapova knows she is up against Williams and history. She must do something different or better or just add to the long roll call of losses.
Pithily she replied when asked if she needed to focus on what she can do better this time: “Absolutely. It’s not like I think about what I can do worse.” Quite.
“I got myself into the quarter-final of a grand slam. There is no reason I shouldn’t be looking to improve and to getting my game in a better position than any other previous round. It’s only going to be tougher, especially against Serena,” she said.
On that Williams said, in the manner of someone congratulating her opponent for her pluck, that every time she plays Sharapova she brings something new and tries really, really hard. Then Williams beats her.
“She always brings in something new and something special. She’s very consistent, as well,” she said damning in feint praise.
Williams is more comfortable reflecting on their history and how she upstaged the then world No.1 back in the day by playing with abandon.
“I just remember hitting an inside out forehand, and, yeah, when I was down match point. I remember hitting it as hard as I could. Yeah, that’s all I remember. I remember obviously winning, and that was really great,” she said of her first defeat of the Russian in Miami in 2004.
“That win propelled me to win the tournament, so … I would give it in the top 10 or top 5 [wins of her career].”
Sharapova then beat her twice – the first and last times she beat her – and Williams recalls getting the win against her in the semi-final here in Melbourne in 2005.
“At that point I wasn’t expecting to get that far, and then I was … in the final, I just honestly didn’t expect to be in the final. I remember I made up my mind I have absolutely nothing to lose in this match, and, I don’t know, I just started playing really well. Because she was the favourite. She was No.1. I really didn’t have anything to lose, so it was just like…”
The weight of history Williams accepts works for and against her.
“I think the person who’s winning could definitely feel the pressure because there is a lot of expectations. The person who is losing, well, I have lost X amount in a row; I don’t have anything to lose. But in this situation, I don’t have anything to lose because I’m just here – every tournament for me is just a bonus at this point in my career. So it’s an interesting place to be at.”
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