Her Best Against The Best: Miami Women’s Final Preview

Serena eyes a record-breaking sixth Miami title.

As her records in key rivalries and her stunning semifinal rout of Agnieszka Radwanska illustrated, Serena Williams plays her best against the best.  Never does that trait become more apparent than in her matches against Maria Sharapova, long envisioned by the media as Serena’s most plausible rival.  Since she escaped three match points against the world No. 2 at the 2005 Australian Open, the world No. 1 has dominated her meetings with a rival who defeated her in two key 2004 finals at Wimbledon and the year-end championships.  Most of those matches have featured little or no drama, including routs in an Australian Open, an Olympics gold-medal match, and a 2007 fourth-round encounter here.  From any of those episodes in their history, viewers can discern that the two women play essentially the same fearlessly aggressive game.  Serena simply executes that game more effectively, relying on the best serve in WTA history, superior athleticism, and greater ability to transition between offense and defense as necessary.

While the American’s brilliance has set the tone, Sharapova certainly has done little to help her own cause on these occasions.  A competitor who emanates such fierce confidence against virtually all other opponents tends to retreat into a muted shell of herself at the outset of or a short distance into these encounters, listlessly resigning herself to the inevitable.  Sharapova commits routine errors much more frequently than she does in the average match, and she generally struggles with her serve to a greater extent than one would attribute to the pressure of Serena’s stinging returns.  In short, fans have grown accustomed to seeing a diluted version of her in these matches when only the most intense version would suffice.  On an 11-match winning streak that has carried her within one victory of the rare Indian Wells-Miami double, Sharapova may have accumulated more confidence than usual to insulate her from the memories of previous meetings with Serena.

Sharapova hasn’t blown kisses after facing Williams since 2004.

The Russian must assert herself early in the match to keep her spirits high, however, and the nearly flawless manner in which Serena burst out of the gate against Radwanska would have left anyone in the dust.  Firing an ace of the first point of her semifinal, the legendary champion delivered a much more forceful statement of intent than she had in earlier rounds.  Much ink has been spilled on Serena’s vaunted ability to elevate her form at the climax of tournaments, to which the motivation of facing an elite opponent probably contributes.  Sharapova likewise elevated her form near the end of Indian Wells to soar past the competition, so this final could produce breathtaking quality if both women can soar simultaneously to produce the tennis of which each is capable at her finest.

Recent Miami finals have seen little such tennis but instead have featured a sequence of routs as the energy in the stadium sags.  Realistically speaking, nothing in the recent history between the top two women in the world leads an observer to predict a match more than routine or modestly respectable.  Four times a finalist at the Sony Open, Sharapova likely will find herself holding the smaller trophy for a fifth time.  Her moment in the Miami sun will come, no doubt, for she plows through the draw here each year with a relentless regularity.  For now, Saturday remains Serena’s time to shine and the Sony Open the tournament where she will hold more titles than at any other.