Welcome to another installment of LiveAnalysis! Today’s match-up is none other than the 14th time Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova face off on a tennis court. They meet today as the World Number 1 and the World Number 2.
As we know, Serena overcame a minor scare in the second set against Li Na in the quarterfinals, but came through in straight sets anyway. She then demolished Agnieszka Radwanska in the semifinals. Maria Sharapova had a tougher than expected quarterfinal against Sara Errani, but like Serena, came out on top in straight sets. The current Roland Garros champion then demolished a tired Jelena Jankovic in the semis. Regardless, both women arrive to this final with plenty of time to rest and recover, given the day off they had yesterday, and the fact that they steamrolled through their semifinal matches.
As I mentioned above, this will be the fourteenth meeting between these two women. Their head-to-head, which Serena Williams leads 11 to 2, looks like this:
Here are a few noteworthy little facts about this lopsided joint history:
– Maria Sharapova hasn’t beaten Serena Williams in almost 9 years. The Russian hasn’t even taken a set in almost exactly five years. Serena has won the last 10 matches these two played against each other, losing all of two sets in the process. That’s synonymous with complete and utter domination.
– These women have played each other every year since 2004, except for two: 2006 and 2009. Interestingly enough, the most times they’ve played each other in a given season is just three (in 2004 and 2012). Sharapova’s two wins against Serena both came in 2004.
– Serena and Maria have actually played twice in Miami. In fact, this is where the rivalry started back in 2004. Serena Williams won both matches in straight sets.
– Today will mark the 9th time these women play on hard courts. Serena has won 8 of those 9 meetings.
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 server 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 to put Serena Williams feel the pressure of an onslaught, and not let the 15-time Slam champ dominate proceedings.
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 – Serena Williams will serve first.
0-0: Sharapova gets a great return in play on the first point of the match, but Serena manages to get an offensive shot of her own from a relatively awkward position, and wins the point anyway. Two points later, Sharapova does force Serena’s error with a great deep return up the middle. However, a service winner and an ace seal the first game for Serena.
The World Number One seems very focused. If Sharapova doesn’t match her level, this will be a very quick match.
1-0, Williams: Two missed returns by Serena give Sharapova a nice 30-0 lead. However, Serena gets a look at a BH DTL, and she puts it away for a clean winner. So far, there isn’t much rhythm to this match. Maria lets out her first “Come on!” after she forces Serena’s error with a BH DTL. 40-15. A nice body serve clinches the game for the Russian.
That was a nice service game from Sharapova. She’ll have to serve at that high level throughout the match. Tough task.
1-1: A great return by Sharapova forces Serena’s error. That’s the kind of returning I was talking about in the Things to Watch For. However, Sharapova is facing the greatest serve in women’s tennis history, and in a blink of an eye, Serena has a 30-15 lead, after a service winner and her second ace of the match. We then get the first interesting rally of the match, after the two trade FH blows, and Sharapova gets the better of Williams with a nice CC FH pass. 30-all, but Serena gets a GP after Sharapova goes for a big return and misses. Now here’s a surprise: Serena DFs. 1st DF of the match for either of these women. Sharapova then gets a look at a CC BH winner, and she exectues perfectly, as Serena seemed to stumble a bit. The first BP of the match is saved when Serena takes care of a relatively short return with her great BH. Deuce #2. After a Serena BH clips the line and gives her a GP, the pair trade BH blows, and Sharapova comes out on top. Sharapova then gets a look at a second serve, but sends it into the net. A bad miss. Another GP goes begging for Serena with a long DTL BH. Deuce #4. Serena then sends a FH UFE into the net, and Sharapova has a 2nd BP. Sharapova plays great defense, and seems to have Serena on her heels, but a fantastic defensive BH by the 5 time Miami champ saves the BP. Deuce #5. Sharapova gets a little lucky with a framed return, and she’ll have a 3rd BP. It is saved with a great serve up the T that Sharapova can’t help but return short. Deuce #6. Sharapova gets a great 2nd serve return in, gets a short ball, but she hits the short ball straight at Serena, who makes her pay for it. GP Serena. But it’s Deuce #7 after another great return by Sharapova nets her a shot ball that this time she puts away into the open court. Another GP for Serena after a great serve gives her a short ball she aptly puts away. Deuce #8 after a phenomenal CC FH winner by Sharapova. However, she follows it up with a tame FH UFE. Yet another GP for Serena Williams. They trade BH blows, but Sharapova ends up sending a CC BH into the net. Serena finally holds.
game already longer than whole olympics final.
— Norbert (@tejmeglekvar) March 30, 2013
That three game stretch was longer than many of the other three game stretches they’ve had.
— Chris P (@scoobschris) March 30, 2013
Feels like Maria won as many points on Serena’s serve in that last game as she typically does in an entire match.
— Marissa (@sblily) March 30, 2013
That was a tough, interesting game. The great trends in Sharapova’s favor are how well she’s returning, and how well her forehand is behaving. Serena is a little more erratic than usual, but she’s having to deal with great shots on almost every point.
2-1, Williams: Sharapova holds to 15 in what seemed like a minute. Exactly what she needed after playing such a tough return game and coming out of it empty-handed.
2-2: Sharapova keeps up her great returning, and goes up 0-30 on Serena’s serve. However, a BH sails long and a return does the same. 30-all. Then…amazing forehands by Sharapova, who is on the warpath. She’ll have a fourth BP at 30-40. And, fittingly, an amazing FH return up the middle that had to clip the line gives Maria Sharapova the early break!
That was fully deserved, and quite impressive. Sharapova is doing everything she needed to do to give herself a chance. Impressive performance so far. She’s giving Serena Williams nothing to attack from – this is a permanent onslaught of aggression.
Serena Williams has lost 15 points on serve so far. Sharapova only 2. Maria up *3-2
— Steph Trudel (@TrudelSteph) March 30, 2013
STATS UPDATE: Sharapova is serving at 82% 1st serves, and has only lost a point on it.
Maria’s return vs Serena. Entire Olympic final: 11 points. First 5 games in Miami: 15 points.
— Álvaro Rama(@alvarorama) March 30, 2013
3-2, Sharapova: Sharapova misses two straight FHs after going up 15-0, so for the first time, she’s behind in the score on her service games. However, a good 1st serve to Serena’s FH nets a service winner. 30-all. Serena gets a look at a 2nd serve, and blasts an inside-out BH. BP #1 for her. 2nd serve again. After a great 2nd ball, Maria Sharapova sends a BH long. Serena recovers the break!
And…everything that was working well just minutes ago evaporated. Sharapova’s 1st serve abandoned her, she made 2 FH UFEs, and punctuated a horrible service game by sending a BH UFE long. That’s the kind of lapse that a heavy underdog cannot afford.
3-3: Serena races to a 40-0 lead. No errors from her…until she overcooks a CC FH. 40-15. Now Serena dumps a BH into the net after a good return. And even though Serena played most of that game with her 2nd serve, Serena holds after a fantastic CC FH.
You cannot overstate the importance of the next service game for Maria Sharapova. She cannot afford another poor service game – Serena is back to the kind of unforgiving form that ends sets in her favor.
About Sharapova’s returns: she’s trying to hit as many as she can up the middle, straight at Serena. That’s a great idea, provided she gets depth (and she has been getting pretty good length on those returns). It’s less flashy than aiming huge returns to the open court, but they are easier to hit (not much redirection of the ball is needed), and if they’re hit well, they achieve the same result.
4-3, Williams: Sharapova is up 40-0 in a heartbeat. She hits two great BHs, a CC + DTL combo, but Serena comes up with an incredible running FH that triggers Maria’s error. Then, after an interesting rally, Sharapova’s FH ends up in the net, unforced. And just when Maria Sharapova needed a point desperately…she DFs for the 1st time in the match. Oy. And then, a sublime 2nd serve up the T that Serena can’t help but return long. That was clutch. GP Sharapova, on a 2nd serve again. Sharapova clinches the hold with an incredible, unbelievable flick BH DTL after a fantastic CC return by Serena.
Sharapova’s BH…a thing of beauty.
4-4: Serena comes up with a few tame UFEs, and she’s down 15-30. Then, out of nowhere, she comes up with a great FH winner from the middle of the court. An incredible shot. But that is followed by a CC FH that is called wide. Serena is back to being down a BP. However, that amazing serve comes to the rescue. An Ace out wide makes it Deuce #1. But just like the amazing FH winner was followed by a tame UFE, that huge ace is followed by a DF. Serena now with more DFs than Sharapova in this match. And then, they play the point of the match so far: Serena seems to have Sharapova on the run from side to side, but Maria comes up with incredible defensive shots, and ends up forcing Serena’s error with a great FH. She breaks, and will serve for the set!
This match…has been quite fun so far. A fantastic battle between two giants of the WTA. Really great stuff. Maria Sharapova now has a chance to win a set versus Serena Williams for the first time since Charleston in 2008.
Last pt where she broke SW to 5-4 illustrates why Sharapova much improved past 2 years: better movement, commitment to defense
— Matt Cronin (@TennisReporters) March 30, 2013
5-4, Sharapova: A Serena FH UFE starts proceedings, and 2 great FHs from Sharapova make it 30-0. Her kingdom for 2 more points, no? Serena then goes for a huge, and very difficult, inside-in BH return winner, and misses. 40-0. Another wild FH UFE by Serena, and Maria Sharapova has clinched the set.
First Set to Maria Sharapova, 6-4
Here are your first set stats:
Second Set – Serena Williams will serve first.
0-0: Serena goes up 40-0 in no time. Fine serving so far. The hold is clinched after another service winner.
RT @trudelsteph This is the 1st set that Maria Sharapova wins in a Miami final (1-8 now)
— Ang (@4AllSurfaces) March 30, 2013
1-0, Williams: Serena gets a couple of great returns in for a 15-30 lead, but Maria Sharapova’s fantastic BH gets her out of trouble. She hit it on the run DTL to then get a shot ball to put away with her FH. Great, great shot. However, another great return by Serena triggers a Sharapova error, and she’ll have a BP. Only the second for her in the match. They trade blows, and it’s Sharapova who cracks. An immediate break for Serena!
That’s the other thing underdogs can’t do: cede momentum after getting a lead. You can’t let the favorite get back into the match. However, it should be said that Serena played a phenomenal return game there.
2-0, Williams: Serena starts her consolidation effort with a DF and an UFE. Then Sharapova gets a fantastic return to her feet, and it’s 0-40. Serena clips the line with a FH, and saves the 1st BP. However, yet another FH exchange ends with a Serena FH into the net. Sharapova breaks back!
That last point illustrated a fascinating trend that has been evident in the match so far: Sharapova’s FH has gotten the better of Serena’s. As amazing as that sounds.
STATS UPDATE: Serena Williams has hit 8 FH UFEs, which is 3 more than Serena. And Serena has only hit one more FH winner than Maria.
2-1, Williams: Maria Sharapova hits a most gorgeous, incredible BH lob over Serena (who clapped after the shot). What was nuts about that shot was that Sharapova hit it on the run, while trying to survive an aggressive Serena I-O FH. What a shot. It made the score 40-15, and a little after, Sharapova clinched the hold.
What a lob. Shot of the match. Unbelievable.
2-2: Maria Sharapova is in the zone right now. Goes up 0-40 on Serena’s serve after a string of crazy winners. And after a few short balls give Serena a chance to attack…it’s Serena’s great BH that crumbles. Maria Sharapova goes up a break!
The World Number 2 is flying high at the moment. Every game is huge in this final, but this particular service game is enormous. Can Sharapova consolidate that well-earned break?
Be interesting to see how Sharapova copes with the sun, now she has to serve from that end. Clearly bothering Serena in that last game.
— Hannah Wilks (@newballsplease) March 30, 2013
3-2, Sharapova: Serena starts off by hitting an insane CC angled BH winner, and follows it up with a simple FH winner off a short ball by Sharapova. 0-30. Then, an amazing BH return that clipped the line. 0-40. Amazing turnaround by Serena Williams. Then, Sharapova makes a FH UFE, and Serena breaks back!
Fantastic reaction by Serena to getting her serve broken so easily. The first shot of the game was simply insane.
3-3: Serena starts her service game by hitting a ridiculous BH winner off her back foot. She then triggers a FH error from Sharapova. 30-0. An incredible point follows, with great defense from both, and it’s Serena who is forced into an error by a great Sharapova FH. The next point finds Serena at net, with Sharapova having a great look at a FH pass. However, the Russian sends her FH pass CC, and Serena puts away the volley. Sharapova goes for an inside-in BH return winner, and misses. A eventful, but relatively quick hold for Serena.
Hahaha that IO BH winner while going backwards… Serena!
— Genny SS (@genny_ss) March 30, 2013
Serena Williams has started her last two games by hitting an incredible BH winner. You just cannot exaggerate just how crazy both shots were. Two of the great backhands in women’s tennis are on full display in Miami today.
4-3, Williams: Two great Sharapova serves earn her a 30-15 lead. Serena’s point was a DF. Serena then mistimes a FH, and Sharapova has two chances to hold. Skinner just mentioned that Sharapova has won only 1 of 9 second serve points. She loses the next two points with her second serve, after fantastic returns by Serena. Deuce #1. And then, an incredible slider out wide ace by Sharapova. GP for her. However, another fantastic return by Serena, and it’s Deuce #2. And now, the second DF of the game for Sharapova, and she’ll try to fend off a BP for the first time in the match. Serena is 3 for 3 on BPs converted. It’s 4 for 4 after another FH UFE by Sharapova. Serena will serve for the set!
As I mentioned above, once Sharapova’s DFs start showing up, that FH starts crumbling, too. Fantastic return game from Serena, though. She’s amping up the pressure on Sharapova’s serve to unbearable levels.
5-3, Williams: Serena is really struggling to serve out this set from the end of the court that puts the sun in her eyes when serving. It’s 0-30 in a flash, but Sharapova donates a FH UFE to make it 15-30. Now a botched 2nd serve return by Sharapova, who seems to be quite rattled at the moment. A timely ace for Serena, and she has a first SP. Moments later, a service winner clinches it for Serena.
Second Set to Serena Williams, 6-3.
Here are your 2nd set stats:
Third Set – Maria Sharapova will serve first.
0-0: Sharapova is facing an immediate 15-40 hole to start the third set. She gets a look at a FH, and sends it well long. That shot is disintegrating before our eyes. Maria has to hit a ton of FHs to get a chance to stave off her 1st BP, which she doesn’t. Serena stopped play after the last Sharapova FH, and it proves to be a great decision: the shot was barely out. Serena starts the set with a break!
Maria Sharapova hasn’t been able to stave off a single BP in the entire match. Serena has broken her serve all five times she’s had a chance to do so. You can also say that Sharapova’s confidence was heavily dented by those two straight breaks of serve at the end of the second set.
1-0, Williams: Serena consolidates the break rather easily. Sharapova is not making a dent on her service games anymore.
2-0, Williams: It’s one-way traffic now: Serena goes up 0-30 after a great return nets her a simple short FH to put away. After Sharapova claws back to 30-all, she DFs. BP #6 for Serena, and as we know, she’s wasted none of them. 2nd serve. And another DF gives Serena the double-break.
The wheels have completely fallen off for Maria Sharapova. Sad to see, after she produced such an incredible performance to go up a set and a break.
STOP ZOOMING IN ON RICHARD #creepy
— Ang (@4AllSurfaces) March 30, 2013
3-0, Williams: Sharapova plays a great 1st point…and then loses the next three. The last one on a BH UFE. 40-15. Serena makes a rare UFE (given how well she’s played since she went down a break in the 2nd set), and it’s 40-30. Then, a wild come-on as a service winner clinches the hold.
Now Serena responds to Maria’s litany of C’mons with one LONG, LOUD one of her own. Salt into the open wound.
— Chris P (@scoobschris) March 30, 2013
Serena up 4-0. That “come on” was heard in the next county
— Savannah (@SavannahsTennis) March 30, 2013
4-0, Williams: Sharapova wins her first service point down 0-30. But she wins two in a row, after a great BH DTL. 30-all. But after more overpowering tennis from Serena, Sharapova faces a seventh BP. And a wild FH DTL UFE by Sharapova gives Serena yet another break. She’ll serve for the bagel.
Serena’s level has gotten better, but Sharapova’s has really dropped precipitously.
— Amy Fetherolf (@AmyFetherolf) March 30, 2013
Pretty much. And the simple fact of the matter is, Sharapova can’t afford to scrape through against Serena Williams. It’s either lights out, or nothing. That’s the unfortunate situation of someone who is facing a very, very bad match-up.
2 Miami women’s finals. 1st one Sharapova Williams 64 32, 2nd one Williams Sharapova 60 30
— enrico maria riva (@enricomariariva) March 30, 2013
5-0, Williams: An Ace starts the game, and it’s followed by a short FH winner after a weak return from Sharapova. Now, a DF from Serena. For the second match in a row, she’s DFed when serving for the match. It hasn’t cost her, though. Now, a FH UFE from Serena. 30-all. After a tough rally, Sharapova’s BH cracks. MP #1 for Serena Williams. A service winner seals the title for Serena Williams!
Here are both women at net:
Game, Set and Match to Serena Williams, 4-6, 6-3, 6-0.
Here are your full match stats:
I can’t stop thinking about the 4-3 game in the second set. Both women had just traded In-The-Zone breaks in the previous two games, and neither could’ve done much to avoid losing their serve in those situations, really.
However, in that 4-3 game of the middle set, things seemed to go back to the trend we had seen develop throughout the match: Maria Sharapova served well enough to hold a 40-15 edge, but Serena pounced on two straight second serves, and suddenly, it was deuce. Sharapova came up with one of her best serves of the match, an Ace (that was not counted as such by the official stats), but that was the last great shot Maria Sharapova would hit for the remainder of the match. Sharapova double-faulted for the second time in the game after that, and after her forehand would let her down again, her serve would be broken for the fourth time.
The Russian wouldn’t win another game, even though it was quite obvious that she had been the better player up to that eighth game.
I also can’t stop thinking about the most remarkable stat from that match, which you can look at in two different ways: if you’re Serena, you smile when you see that you converted every single break point opportunity you had in that match. All 7 of them. If you’re Sharapova, you fend off the sadness when you see that you couldn’t survive a single break point. Out of 7!
To me, this match served as a perfect illustration of how well someone has to play to have a chance to overcome a bad match-up. But what is a bad match-up? Simple answer: when your opponent has an advantage over you in key areas of the game. In this specific scenario, you could even argue that Serena Williams has an advantage over Maria Sharapova in every facet of the game of tennis, except maybe when you talk about their great, great backhands (and that would be an interesting argument). Thus, Serena Williams can afford to play patchy tennis and still overcome Sharapova if the Russian isn’t red-lining. This is why this head-to-head is so lopsided: It’s now 12 and 2, with 11 straight wins for Serena. And she’s only lost 3 sets in the process.
Still, for a set and a half, Sharapova was playing at an incredibly high level. Those who claim that Serena was “off” have to look very carefully at all the good things Maria Sharapova was doing to force Serena out of her comfort zone. It started with the return of serve, which pushed Serena back way more than the 6 time Miami champion is used to. It continued with constant aggression off both wings, and with a forehand that wouldn’t crack. There was great serving, too. But, coming back to the bad match-up theme, you could see that while Sharapova would’ve been up 6-1 and 5-0 against anybody else, she was merely up 6-4 and 3-2 against Serena Williams.
And even though Sharapova had managed to break Serena Williams’ serve four times in the match, her nemesis had broken her own serve three times, too. And moments after playing her best game of the match, at 2-all in the second set, Sharapova would watch her own serve get broken twice, and her lead vanish before her eyes in the most brutal of ways.
Going back to the BP situation. We know about the positive psychological effect that saving a BP gives a tennis player. Sharapova never got to experience that feeling in this match, even when she was playing well. What’s worse is that many of those BPs were played with her second serve, and many ended with FH UFEs on her part.
This goes back to something I mentioned at the beginning of the contest: in a bad match-up situation, weaknesses have to become strengths. Because once those weaknesses return to their normal state, they get exploited mercilessly. And every time Maria Sharapova needed her serve and her forehand to come up with something special to fend off a break point, she was left stranded. And one of the greatest tennis players of all time was waiting, ready to pounce.
Let’s be clear about something: had Serena Williams played badly today, she would’ve lost that match in straight sets. Serena was doing what all proud champions do: coming up with the necessary amount of great tennis to stay within striking distance of a zoned-out opponent. Having played Maria Sharapova so many times before, Serena had to know that if she found ways to prolong the match, the more likely it was that Maria Sharapova would come down to earth after such a fantastic start. The 1st serve would vanish, the double-faults would start popping up, and the forehand would start cracking. And when all of that happened in that fateful 4-3 game, Serena was absolutely ready to take her chance. She had started zeroing in on Sharapova’s second serve, and her great returning paid off quite handsomely. Sharapova would never hold serve again.
What the next eight games exemplified is how easy it is for Serena Williams to pick apart Maria Sharapova’s game if the latter is struggling. I’m pretty sure Sharapova didn’t even have a game point again for the remainder of the match, which is pretty incredible, if you think about it.
What is remarkable about Serena Williams is what she did when she went down a break in that second set. She had just seen her rival play a zoned-out game to break her. Yet Serena came out and produced a zoned-out game of her own, starting with an absolutely obscene CC BH winner that had a filthy angle on it.
It takes a special kind of champion to summon their best just as their opponent is red-lining. That’s what Rafael Nadal had to do in the Australian Open semifinals back in 2009, when Fernando Verdasco played possessed tennis up until the last point of a 5 hour match. Maria Sharapova’s problem today was that she just couldn’t keep it going after that 4-3 game. She came crashing down to earth.
And Serena Williams didn’t come down with her: she just kept flying.
You had to feel for Sharapova. She knows how well she played. She knows she was up a set and a break on her nemesis. She was close to pulling off an unlikely upset. And yet…she finished the match as far away from Serena Williams as she was before a ball was struck.
As for Serena Williams, she can look at that last sentence and flip it to suit herself: Sharapova played unbelievable tennis, and yet, Serena finished the match by winning the last nine games.
The distance between the two women, in the end, remained more or less the same.