30th July, 2011
If Serena Williams’ comeback isn’t quite complete, it is a wondrous work in progress. That was the undeniable conclusion last night after her 6-1, 6-3 dismantling of Maria Sharapova in the quarterfinals of the Bank of the West Classic.
Serena made it clear that she is steamrolling merrily toward the U.S. Open, and in a match that stunned a sellout crowd of 3,866 at Stanford’s Taube Tennis Stadium, Sharapova lit a flaming torch to her own cause.
How does a player break Sharapova’s first five service games of a match? With a lot of help. Now months deep into a strategic serving dilemma, Sharapova uncorked seven double-faults and won only 12 points on her first serve all night.
Take nothing away from Serena, who had the edge in every category, statistical and confrontational.
Sharapova was able to sustain only a few spirited rallies (23 unforced errors in those two quick sets) and may have set a personal record for the fewest fist pumps.
But unless she comes to terms with her serve, there will be more setbacks like this one.
Serena now moves on to the semifinals in a tournament growing rich with the echoes of Wimbledon.
The women’s tour is in such a strange state right now.
In a given match, Sharapova can ride out her transgressions and win on the strength of will power and her punishing groundstrokes.
She reached the Wimbledon final, after all, and got to the semifinals of the French Open. But in a high-profile match against a big hitter who can match her mental strength – such as Serena yesterday’s night, or Petra Kvitova at Wimbledon – there’s just no room for outright clumsiness.
To her credit, she refuses to patty-cake her second serves, especially against a returner of Serena’s calibre. But there is a time for caution.
When you’re down 0-4 and 30-40 in the first set, it might not be the time to blast a second serve at 97 mph. But that’s Sharapova, who has no Plan B on her serve or her groundstrokes, other than to just hit the ball harder, and the double-fault brought that game to a sickening thud.
Sharapova rarely says anything of consequence in her postmatch interviews, a stance that lends an air of mystery to her lofty, cosmopolitan image, and she was right in character afterward.
She did acknowledge being “extremely late. Didn’t have my timing at all. I’d hit one good ball and then I was … kind of stuck. I just felt late and sluggish out there.”
Serena has complete ownership of the head-to-head matchups, meanwhile, with a 7-2 record and six straight wins.
Asked how she felt about the rivalry, Sharapova admitted, “I think I need to win a couple of matches before it becomes a rivalry.”
As for Serena, it was a tremendously satisfying result that she felt the need to downplay.
“If it were a final, I’d rate it a little bit higher,” she said. “I know I can compete against the top 10, top five players again. I’m still climbing, though. It’s not a Grand Slam, and it’s just one match. But it is a big tournament, so I have to look at it both ways.”
Both women had called the matchup a fine thing for women’s tennis, and few would disagree. In terms of accomplishment, power and mental strength, it’s probably the best the sport can offer.
Regrettably, it was only their third meeting in the past four years. As well as it serves Sharapova to keep her true feelings to herself, this was one she won’t soon forget.