Welcome to another installment of LiveAnalysis! Today’s match-up is the second consecutive Premier Mandatory final between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. The two met in the Miami final a little over a month ago – a match that I also did LiveAnalysis for.
What has changed since Miami happened? Well, each woman won a title on clay: Serena did it on the green Har-Tru of Charleston, whereas Maria took the Stuttgart title, played on indoor red clay. They’re still ranked 1 and 2 in the world, though a Sharapova win would flip their rankings. Per the WTA site, this is Serena Williams’ first final on red clay since 2002.
Both women won their semifinal encounters in straight sets (Sharapova hasn’t lost a set in Madrid yet), but Serena Williams had quite the scare in the quartefinals, when she got bageled by Anabel Medina Garrigues (an extremely rare occurrance: Serena had only received 6 bagels before). The younger Williams found a way to take the match 7-5 in the third set, avoiding what would’ve been a rather unfortunate defeat.
This will be the fifteenth meeting between these two women. Their head-to-head, which Serena Williams leads 12 to 2, looks like this:
Here are a few noteworthy little facts about this lopsided joint history:
– This will be the first Williams-Sharapova match to be played on red clay. They have played on clay twice before, but as you can see, one was in Charleston ( on green Har-Tru), and one was in Madrid last year (the infamous blue “clay”).
– By winning the 1st set of the Miami final, Sharapova broke a streak of 13 consecutive sets she had lost to Serena. And as we remember, Maria was up a break in that second set of the Miami final. But things unraveled far too quickly for her after that.
– Sharapova won the first two finals played between them, but Serena has won the last four.
Three Things to Watch For:
1. Can Maria Sharapova produce an elite serving performance? If the 4-time Slam champion gives away service points via her usual double-fault runs, she’ll be in big trouble. And as I noted in the Errani piece, it seems like her confidence slips when her serve starts letting her down. Today Sharapova needs to dominate with her serve, getting easy points as well as great opportunities to get on the offensive with the first shot after the delivery. It’s nearly impossible to see her overcome Serena Williams if Maria also has to overcome serving woes.
2. Can Sharapova’s forehand survive against Serena’s forehand? Today Maria needs to produce a forehand performance like the one she put on against Venus in Australia. That means a lot of aggression, and very few errors. If it’s not clear by the head-to-head, let’s make it obvious now: this is a very bad match-up for Maria Sharapova. Hence, her weaknesses have to become strengths in order for her to have a fighting chance.
3. Can Maria Sharapova find ways to get in Serena’s service games consistently, and take the younger Williams sister out of her comfort zone? This is extremely hard to do, but Sharapova needs to take the rhythm away from Serena with very good returns every time she gets a look at a second serve. She needs Serena Williams to feel the pressure of an onslaught, and not let the 15-time Slam champ dominate proceedings.
In case you didn’t notice, those were the same three things I wrote ahead of the Miami final. I don’t see how anything has changed to make me guide your attention towards other aspects of this match. Of course, clay is now Sharapova’s domain (particularly red clay), so it will be interesting to see if the surface gives her an edge over Serena that she hasn’t had in many, many years. Almost nine, to be exact-ish. Still, the keys to the match remain the same, no matter the surface.
Remember to refresh this page often, as I will be providing game-by-game updates throughout the match!
As in previous LiveAnalysis posts, I’ll be using a bit of “tennis shorthand” today. Here’s your glossary:
BP: Break Point
DTL: Down the line (means the same as “up the line”)
GP: Game Point
SP: Set Point
UFE: Unforced Error
The women are on court, so we should be starting soon:
First Set – Maria Sharapova Will Serve First.
0-0: Sharapova finds herself in a quick 15-40 hole, as Serena forces an error with a good return. The American goes for another big return, but misses. No worries for her, as minutes later she nets the break after a good CC FH.
Worst possible start for Sharapova, no? Got broken rather easily, and she already donated her first double-fault. The opposite of the Miami final.
1-0, Williams: A late out call in Serena’s favor is the only drama of this game…until Serena double-faults at 40-0. Moments later, Serena fires a FH DTL missile to consolidate the break.
Serena is hitting the ball very, very cleanly. This does not bode well for the World Number 2.
2-0, Williams: Serena stands about a foot inside the baseline to throttle a second serve, and moments later she’s forced the error and has another chance to break. Which she does, after blasting a fantastic BH DTL return.
Serena is quite sharp. Not much Sharapova can do…and she’s not doing much to avert the disaster, to be honest. There have been 2 double faults already.
3-0, Williams: Serena’s first unforced error comes at 15-0. Another comes at 40-15. Minor details in a hold to 30 that is achieved via a fantastic body serve.
Maria Sharapova is about 5 light years away from the level she was at during the first set and a half of the Miami final. And Serena is playing at the level she reached in the final half of that Miami final. This is very problematic for Maria Sharapova.
4-0, Williams: Sharapova finds herself with a chance to hold at 40-15, but two errors later (one of them her 4th DF of the match), and we’re at Deuce. A service winner gives Maria a chance to hold, but a wild BH UFE makes it Deuce #2. It’s GP for Sharapova again, after Serena goes for a big FH return that ends up in the net. But another wild BH UFE makes it Deuce #3. An Ace, and it’s GP for Sharapova once again. Can she get on the board? Not yet, as a FH sails long, unprovoked.
OMG Serena, give her the game so we can move on.
— Ataraxis (@Ataraxis00) May 12, 2013
It’s GP once again after a great FH CC by Sharapova. But we’re at Deuce #5 after DF #5 for Maria Sharapova. Who then has yet another GP after a good FH. The bleeding finally stops for the Sugarpova CEO, as Serena misses a FH.
Högstedt is summoned, and his pep talk can be summarized thus: “attack, don’t be afraid, fight, move forward, don’t stay back.”
4-1, Williams: Serena holds to 15 without much fuss. She’s having a dominant afternoon with her serve: she’s only lost 2 points with her 1st serve, and 2 with her 2nd serve. Not helping matters is the fact that Serena is serving 81% first serves.
"When other players' coaches come out, I get extra pumped. I'm like, 'OK, I got 'em now'…It makes me even feel stronger and better." -Serena
— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) May 12, 2013
5-1, Williams: Serena pummels some returns, and she has two set points at 15-40. Sharapova saves the first with a nice body serve + FH winner combo. But another great return, and Serena has broken once again, this time for the set.
That was pretty violent. Serena was untouchable, but Sharapova played a very mediocre set. Far from what she needs to make this match competitive.
First Set to Serena Williams, 6-1.
Here are your 1st set stats:
Second Set – Serena Williams Will Serve First.
0-0: Seemingly out of nowhere, Sharapova has a chance to break at 30-40. First time she’s made it this far in a Serena service game. A nice return forces Serena’s error, and Maria has the early break!
That was surprising – but that’s the kind of thing that champions do: they keep competing. Full marks to Sharapova, who was completely overwhelmed by a stellar Serena in that opening set.
1-0, Sharapova: An Ace out wide gives Sharapova her first 40-0 lead of the match. She’s doing everything Högstedt asked her to do: move forward, hit into the open court, and just keep the aggression constant. Moments later, she consolidates the break to 15 with a thundering CC BH winner.
2-0, Sharapova: Serena rights the ship with a quick hold to 15. She mixed in some good serves and her FH did as commanded.
2-1, Sharapova: Once again, Sharapova has a 40-0 lead. She’s serving much, much better now, and Serena isn’t timing her returns as impeccably as she did in the first set.
During that game, we got this little stat update:
Sometimes it’s that simple, no? Stop giving away points via errors, and good things will happen. Naturally, that’s FAR easier said than done, particularly when you factor in the context (Premier Mandatory final).
3-1, Sharapova: Sharapova gets a look at a FH DTL at 30-all, but she misses it well wide. 40-30. Maria comes up with a dazzling FH DTL return winner, and we’re at Deuce. GP for Serena as she serves up a beauty of a slider service winner. And she holds after a brutal rally in which both ladies clobber the ball all over the court. Serena anticipated a Sharapova BH DTL, and countered with a FH DTL winner.
This is heating up. Which is a nice development.
3-2, Sharapova: A great FH CC return by Serena forces the error, and she’s up 0-30. Another great return sets up an easy FH DTL, and it’s 0-40. In the blink of an eye. And to make matters worse, Maria Sharapova returns to her mediocre 1st set form, and double-faults away the break.
Serena hit elite returns in that game. Rattled Sharapova completely. Are we in for a quick resolution to this dispute?
3-3: Serena Williams is on fire – she’s up 30-0 after a gorgeous CC BH winner. Sharapova stops the rut with a great FH CC return. 30-15. Then Serena donates a BH UFE, and it’s 30-all. Williams then plays a simply horrific dropper that Sharapova punishes accordingly. 30-40, and a chance for Sharapova to regain the lead. Which Serena saves via a good serve and a putaway FH. An Ace up the T gives her GP moments later, but is tempted by another bad dropper. Deuce #2. But some good serves hand the game to Serena.
Those droppers were hilarious. So, so terrible.
4-3, Williams: Serena goes up 15-30 behind great returns, but Sharapova levels with a good Serve + 1. But then…yet another double-fault for Maria Sharapova. The 7th of the match. 30-40. The break/match point is saved with a nice Serve + BH combo. A good second serve gives Maria a game point, and another gives her the hold.
Sharapova lives to fight another game. Barely.
4-4: Serena holds to love, with the only drama in that game coming from a running FH DTL pass that Sharapova barely missed.
All signs point to this match ending in the next game. Can Sharapova fight back the seemingly inevitable? She’ll have to come up with extremely shots to survive. Serena looks ready to claim a trophy.
5-4, Williams: A blistering CC FH return makes it 0-15. A fantastic CC FH forces the error, and it’s 0-30. And then, DF #8 to set up triple match point. Serena once again forces Sharapova’s error with a deep FH CC, and she breaks to win the title!
Game, Set and Match to Serena Williams: 6-1, 6-4.
Here are your full match stats:
There really wasn’t much anybody could have done against Serena Williams in that first set. She was unstoppable, and when all-time greats reach those heights, there’s not much you can do.
However, you could see right from the onset that we weren’t getting the fearless Maria Sharapova who was so impressive for half of the Miami final. We got the tentative and erratic version that lost 10 straight games in that same final.
If anything, this match destroyed what many (me included) thought about this rivalry moving to the red clay. Much was said about how the red clay represented Sharapova’s best chance to beat Serena for the first time since 2004. After all, they had never played on this surface, and Sharapova had made such significant strides on it. But I think this line of thinking was based more on Sharapova’s recent results rather than on how their games match up on this kind of surface. Because if we had sat down to think about this for two minutes, we would’ve realized just how silly this was.
As we saw today, the surface didn’t change a thing in the dynamics between these two women. If anything, the red clay gives Serena just a little bit more time to set up her returns, which definitely doesn’t favor Sharapova. Serena also seemed to have a little more time to target Sharapova’s forehand at will, and her movement was pretty great. The bad match-up ended up being a worse match-up.
Still, credit should be given to Sharapova, who played a much better second set. But her aggression and high quality serving didn’t last nearly enough for her to level the match and force a decider. Few people were surprised when she surrendered her break lead at 3-2 in what seemed like the blink of an eye, and the same could be said for the last game of the match.
It all seemed inevitable, and for long stretches, it was all too easy for Serena Williams. The World Number One saved her best for the most important match of the week, and that kind of excellence was far too much for Maria Sharapova to handle. Even on this surface.
It has to be dispiriting for Maria Sharapova to know that not even on this new refuge of hers, on this red stuff she once detested (and that Serena doesn’t like all that much), she still can’t get an advantage over her long-time nemesis. I can’t imagine what is going through her mind right now.
Hence, it’ll be fascinating to see how Maria Sharapova responds in Rome.